The Taste With Vir: Kung Pao vs Gong Bao Chicken, reality of food globalisation

Published on Aug 01, 2022 10:49 AM IST

American Kung Pao chicken is basically chicken with soya sauce and chilli. Till 2005 there were restrictions on importing Sichuan peppercorns into the US so they never became part of the recipe. The real Chinese dish is dark and complex.

A representative image of Kung Pao Chicken.(Pixabay)
A representative image of Kung Pao Chicken.(Pixabay)
By, Delhi

As we all know, Chinese food outside of China can be very un-Chinese. What most of the world thinks of as Chinese food was actually invented in America in the early part of the 20th century when poor Chinese immigrants to the United States (US), who faced terrible discrimination and found it hard to find jobs, opened small, cheap restaurants.

They used Cantonese as the base cuisine but the focus was on creating dishes that were inexpensive and easy to make. So, there were lots of vegetables, lots of rice, and lots of noodles. The meat was cut into small pieces or tiny slivers (because meat was the most expensive ingredient they used).

That vegetable-noodle-rice menu travelled around the world and became the basis of the menu of most Chinese restaurants (outside China) till the 1970s or so. (Chop Suey is emblematic of this kind of cuisine.)

But each country also went on to develop its own ‘Chinese’ specialities, most of which were entirely unknown in China. The Americans ate General Tso’s Chicken, a locally created dish. The British ate Crispy Aromatic Duck with pancakes. The presentation imitated Peking Duck but the dish, which was deep-fried, was quite different.

In India, a local Mumbai restaurateur invented Chicken Manchurian in the 1970s. (Calcutta restaurateurs had already invented Chilli Chicken--a peculiarly Indian-style ‘Chinese’ dish.)

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There are some junk Chinese dishes that are global but they are a) relatively recent arrivals on Chinese menus, b) differ in style from country to country and c) are all unknown in China though they may be originally descended from actual Chinese dishes.

The best example is Kung Pao Chicken. You will find it on nearly every menu these days, but it only began appearing in restaurants over the last 30 years. It first turned up on American Chinese menus in the 1970s and then travelled the world.

Nothing I have read explains how Kung Pao chicken became an American menu favourite. A popular theory is that when President Richard Nixon went to China in 1972 he set off a trend. Till that point, Americans had mostly been content to eat Chop Sewage (outside of San Francisco and New York); the same bogus Chinese that had been served in the US for decades. Certainly, till the seventies, it was unusual for Chinese restaurants in America to mix meat or fish with nuts.

But the Chinese on the mainland ate a lot of nuts. In 1971, the American columnist James Reston, one of the most respected journalists of his time, visited China for an advance trip before Nixon’s visit. While he was there, Reston suffered an acute attack of appendicitis and was treated (successfully) in Chinese hospitals. The illness allowed Reston to see parts of Chinese life that were off-limits to journalists and provided him with a glimpse of the real China.

When he came back, Reston wrote in the New York Times about his experiences and his articles were second only to Nixon’s diplomacy in the impact they had on American perceptions of China. Reston wrote, for instance, that Chinese doctors had used acupuncture on him and that it had worked. This gave legitimacy to acupuncture in the US and led to a boom that still continues.

He wrote also about food. Ordinary Chinese people carried their own chopsticks with them when going out to eat, he noted. They ate from the serving bowl itself and they ate a lot of peanuts. In fact, peanuts showed up in a variety of dishes.

Reston described a cuisine that most Americans, including Chinese-Americans, were unfamiliar with. But, in the years that followed there was a rush to serve more authentic Chinese cuisine. And chefs finally began adding nuts to meat and chicken dishes.

It is often argued that Kung Pao Chicken appeared as a consequence of that trend. It is unlikely that Reston ate Kung Pao Chicken when he was in China or any variation thereof. But he did write about peanuts. So, Kung Pao chicken, which is, in essence, Chicken with peanuts may have sounded right to American restaurateurs.

The dish does have a Chinese ancestor. In Sichuan, they eat Gong Bao Ji Ding, which is chicken with peanuts. But here’s the thing: It was more or less banned from menus around the time that Reston was there and did not really reappear till the 1980s.

That a simple chicken dish should be banned for political reasons tells you something about China under Mao Zedong. The dish was named for a 19th century governor of Sichuan whose title was Gong Bao. This was enough to cause the commissars of the Culture Revolution to ban all mention of Gong Bao Chicken. Though a few chefs continued to cook it in Sichuan, they avoided the real name of the dish and used variations that translated as Fast Fried Chicken or Chicken with Nuts.

So, if it did reach America in the 1970s, it is hard to see how it got the Kung Pao name. By the 1980s, however, the name was back in use in China, as Mao’s legacy faded, so perhaps the dish began its global journey only towards the last decades of the 20th century.

But American Kung Pao is a junk-Chinese dish, much favoured by takeaway operations, and has none of the flavour of the Sichuan original. When I first tried a real Gong Bao Chicken over 15 years ago at London’s Bar Shu, one of the first restaurants in Europe to serve authentic contemporary Sichuan food, I was startled by how complex the flavour was.

Real Gong Bao has fire (lots of dried red chillies), sweetness (sugar), umami (fresh soy sauce), sourness (from local Sichuan vinegar), and the special tingle that comes from Sichuan peppercorns. If you screw up the exact quantities of any of those ingredients then the dish fails because the balance is lost.

American Kung Pao chicken is basically chicken with soya sauce and chilli. Till 2005 there were restrictions on importing Sichuan peppercorns into the US so they never became part of the recipe. The real Chinese dish is dark and complex. The junk American dish is light and cheerful. If it wasn’t for the fact that both had peanuts you may not even realise that they were two versions of the same dish.

Though I have now become something of a Gong Bao chicken junkie, and ordered it at every restaurant we went to in Sichuan province, I am horrified by the variations of the dish you find all over the world.

I don’t know who brought Kung Pao Chicken to India but the consensus among restaurateurs was that peanuts were too downmarket, so they started making the dish with cashew nuts, which some people (though not me) may like but which has the effect of altering it beyond all recognition. At Sino-Ludhianvi restaurants, it has been so bastardised that even the term junk-Chinese seems too dignified to describe it.

If you don’t believe me you can google the Kung Pao recipes posted by Indian chefs on the net. Many recommend you deep fry the chicken (a capital offence for a Chinese chef) and soak it in a dodgy sauce.

So, I often order Kung Pao Chicken at Indian Chinese restaurants that claim to make authentic Chinese food. It is a good test of the calibre of the chef. So far, the only place I have found where you can get the real thing is Delhi’s China Kitchen. And even there, you have to ask the server to tell the translator to tell Chef Zhang (who does not speak much English) to make it as if he is still cooking in mainland China. It can be a cumbersome process. But it is worth it.

For me, the significance of the global fame of Kung Pao Chicken lies in the mystery surrounding its emergence outside China. Who took it to America? How did it travel the world? And who brought it to India and decided that the Americans had not bastardised the dish enough and that it was our job to rob it of all flavour?

That’s the reality of food globalisation. Every country makes its own versions of dishes. And with each version you go further and further away from the flavour of the original.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing: People must eat what they enjoy. But it does demonstrate that even when food appears to unite, it actually divides us.

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    Why hide the papers? Why keep the conspiracy theories related to Netaji Subhas Bose’s death alive? And why deny India the truth about the death of one of its great freedom fighters?

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