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The Story Behind Kung Pao Chicken

What’s the first dish you learned how to say in Chinese? Was...

10·13·2010

What’s the first dish you learned how to say in Chinese? Was it gōngbǎo jīdīng 宫保鸡丁 (known in the West as Kung Pao Chicken)? If it was, you’re not alone.

Gōngbǎo jīdīng has become such a staple for foreigners in China that it has become a bit of a joke among locals. It’s tasty, its name is easy to say, and it’s available pretty much everywhere, so it’s something you’ll see on most foreigners’ dinner tables at one time or another. “All foreigners like gōngbǎo jīdīng,” a former student of mine once told me. I would have told her that was just a generalization, but it’s kind of true. I don’t know any foreigners here who dislike the dish.

Part of its fame among the foreign comes from the fact that it’s also a staple of North American-style Chinese food, although it’s cooked differently and lacks the numbing spice that makes the Sichuan original recipe so tasty (that spice was illegal to import to the US until 2005, so chefs in the States had to work without it).

But foreigners aren’t the only ones to go gaga for gōngbǎo jīdīng. In fact, the dish gets its name from its first adoring fan: Ding Baozhen.

As a boy in Guizhou the early nineteenth century, the story goes, Ding Baozhen accidentally fell into the water. He couldn’t swim, but he was saved by a man who happened to be passing by. Ding grew up and became a government official, eventually attaining the rank of Gōngbǎo (宫保) at a post in Sichuan Province. Reflecting on the man had once who saved his life as a boy, he decided to pay the family a visit to express his gratitude.

While visiting their home, Ding Baozhen was served a dish featuring diced chicken, peanuts, and spicy Sichuan peppercorns. He liked the flavor, and legend has it that he asked the family chef for the recipe and began eating it on a regular basis and serving it to his own guests. The dish quickly spread around Sichuan Province, where it came to be called gōngbǎo jīdīng 宫保鸡丁 in honor of the dish’s most ardent fan, Ding Baozhen.

More than a century later, the dish hasn’t lost a step. Trading in imperial ministers for international pop singers, gōngbǎo jīdīng’s most recent cultural feat was appearing in a 2002 pop song by Chinese-American singer David Zee Tao. “Happiness is like a plate of hot and spicy gōngbǎo jīdīng,” he croons in Chinese (here are links to the song and the lyrics if you’re interested).

So the next time someone chuckles when you order gōngbǎo jīdīng, take heart in the fact that you’re not alone. It is, after all, the dish that everyone loves, from C-pop superstars to Qing dynasty government officials.

Now that you know about some history, learn about a quick and easy microwave method to make some on your own! 

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