Even if you don’t pronounce it exactly like a Chinese person, Kung Pao Chicken is probably the first Chinese dish you got the hang of saying in approximate Chinese. This dish has become such a staple for foreigners in China, that the Chinese make a bit of a joke out of the fact. However, there’s no doubt that Kung Pao Chicken is tasty and available pretty much everywhere in the US.
What you may not know is that the original Westernized version of this dish was different. It lacked the authentic spicy hotness of authentic Sichuan peppercorns which were illegal to import into the US until 2005 for fear they could spread a disease to citrus trees.
How Did Kung Pao Chicken Get Its Name?
Kung Pao Chicken gets its name from its first appreciative fan, Ding Baozhen (also known as Ding Gongbao). As a young boy in China in the early 19th Century, Ding accidentally fell into a body of water. He couldn’t swim but was saved from drowning by a passerby. The boy grew up and eventually became a high-ranking court official in Sichuan Province during the Qing Dynasty.
One day, he decided to visit the family of the man who had saved his life to express his gratitude. While in the family home, Ding ate a flavorful dish featuring sliced chicken, peanuts, and hot and spicy Sichuan peppercorns. He thought this dish was so delicious that he persuaded the family chef to give him the recipe.
He ate the dish regularly, served it to his guests, and it quickly became popular in Sichuan Province, where it was given the name of Gongbao Jiding (after Ding Gongbao). In English, it is called Gongbao Chicken, or, more often, Kung Pao Chicken.
More About Ding Baozhen
Ding Baozhen is remembered and honored in China for his many achievements and his fight against corruption. Some of his accomplishments were:
- The arrest and eventual execution in 1869 of An Dehai, the much-patronized eunuch of the Empress Dowager Ci Xi. An Dehai was hated by both court officials and the common people for his arrogance, domineering behavior, and corruption.
- The establishment of a school to educate young people in math, physics, astronomy, irrigation, and geography. Ding’s aim was to train a pool of talented young people who could focus on developing the Chinese nation.
- The taming of the Yellow River in Shandong province, and the reconstruction of the Dujiangyan irrigation system in Chengdu. This system is now seen as one of the most well-designed and important irrigation systems in the world.
If you would like to read more about Ding Baozhen’s interesting life, click here.
Kung Pao Chicken is Still Going Strong
More than a century after it was named, Kung Pao Chicken (Gongbao Jiding) has spread around the world. So, it goes without saying that for any lover of robust spicy flavors, Kung Pao Chicken is a favorite dish and will probably remain so forever. Gongbao Jiding even appeared in a 2002 pop song by Taiwanese-American singer David Zee Tao who croons (in Chinese):
“Happiness is like a plate of hot and spicy Gongbao Jiding.”