Today’s dish is a freshened and lightened-up version of kung pao, but first, let’s take a look at the basics of Sichuan cuisine.
Understanding Sichuan Cuisine
Sichuan province includes the major cities Chengdu and Chongqing. Sichuan cuisine is one of the eight major cuisines of China; the others include Guangdong, Shandong, Fujian, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Hunan and Anhui. It is distinguished by numbing and fiery mala flavours coupled with the use of heat-heavy cooking methods such as flash-frying. The combination of the following cornerstone ingredients creates a stimulating profile that is quintessentially Sichuan:
- Sweet brown sugar
- Sour vinegar
- Salty tamari
- Spicy chillies
- Bitter spring onions
- Pungent garlic
- Nutty sesame and peanuts
- Numbing Sichuan peppercorns
Famous Sichuan dishes that you are probably familiar with include hot and sour soup, mapo tofu, dandan noodles, kung pao chicken, mala hot pot, and various vegetables, meats or wontons drenched in chilli oil.
SPOTLIGHT on Sichuan peppercorns
Sichuan peppercorn (Zanthoxylum simulans) is not a true pepper; it comes from the prickly ash shrub in the citrus family (true peppers are from Piper nigrum). Their flavour is slightly lemony, and produces a tongue-tingling and unsuspecting numbing paresthesia, not unlike the Japanese sansho peppercorn (Zanthoxylum piperitum). It is not hot or pungent like black pepper. The useful part of Sichuan peppercorn is the dried fruit husk (pericarp), where most of the flavour chemicals reside. Of note, the compound hydroxy-alpha-sanshool activates tactile sensors in our lips and mouth, which causes the numbing sensation.
To bring out the most of Sichuan peppercorns, dry-toast what you need for the recipe in a frying pan over low heat until fragrant, then use as instructed in the recipe, either whole or crushed. Sichuan peppercorn is one of the five ingredients in Chinese Five Spice powder.
History of Kung Pao
Although kung pao chicken is one of the best known Sichuan dish, its origins are hotly contested. What no one disputes, however, is that kung pao is linked to General Ding Baozhen, a Qing dynasty official with the rank of Gōng Bǎo (宫保 / palace guardian). One version goes like this. One day, Ding visited the family of a man who saved his life when he fell into a river when he was young. Ding was served a dish featuring diced chicken, peanuts and Sichuan peppercorns. He enjoyed it so much that he began eating it on a regular basis and serving it to his guests. The dish quickly spread around Sichuan Province, and it came to be known as Gōng Bǎo Jī Dīng (宫保鸡丁 / palace guardian chicken bits) in honour of the official.
Raw Vegan Fusion Kung Pao Light
The traditional method for cooking kung pao chicken can be divided into a three part process. First, chicken cubes are coated in a marinade of corn starch, tamari, Shaoxing wine, then flash-fried in hot oil briefly and set aside. Second, Aromatics and spices (ginger, garlic, dried chillies, Sichuan peppercorns, red peppers) are sauteed in oil to release their flavours. Third, a salty-sweet-sour starchy black sauce of tamari, vinegar, sugar, stock, and corn starch is added to create a thick sauce. Finally the chicken is added back, with the finishing touches of peanuts and spring onions.
However, I am not a fan of the gloopy, glossy sauce that coats the protein (in my case, tempeh). Hence I decide to deconstruct it. The tempeh is marinated in the same traditional seasonings, sans starch. It is then baked to a crisp exterior in the oven; this reduces the oil content while still keeping texture. The aromatics and spices are packed into the cashews to create mala-coated cashews. Instead of deep-frying the nuts, they are slow-dried at low temperature in the dehydrator, thus retaining their nutrient integrity and minimising formation of oxidised radicals. The vegetables (peppers, spring onions, chillies) are simply chopped. Although not a traditional ingredient, I love cilantro and can not help but add it to the dish. Once you have your mise en place ready, just toss all the ingredients together and call it a kung pao salad that is still packed with the stimulating numbing-spicy paresthesia, but a whole lot fresher.
Dietary notes on Kung Pao Tempeh with Mala Cashews
Raw (except for tempeh which is baked, and some seasoning ingredients)
Vegan (soybean tempeh is used to replace chicken)
Gluten free (if using tamari and dry sherry)
No starch thickeners such as corn starch
Minimal oil (just a pinch of sesame oil for flavour)
Kung Pao Tempeh with Mala Cashews (Raw Vegan Fusion)
A fresher and lighter version of kung pao. Tempeh is marinated in traditional seasonings sans starch and baked instead of fried to a crisp exterior in the oven. Aromatics and spices are packed into the cashews to create mala-coated activated cashews. Vegetables (peppers, spring onions, chillies) are simply chopped. These are tossed together to create a kung pao salad that is still packed with the numbing-spicy paresthesia, but a whole lot fresher.
Mala Activated Cashews
- 144 g (1 cup) raw cashews, soaked at least 4 hours
- 2 tsp vegetable stock
- 1 1/2 tsp Kashmiri chilli powder (gives a deep red colour; sub 1 tsp cayenne if not available)
- 1 tsp tamari
- 1 tsp raw cashew hoisin
- 1 tsp brown rice vinegar
- 1 tsp Shaoxing rice wine (sub dry sherry for gluten-free)
- 1 tsp coconut sugar
- 1/2 tsp garlic powder
- 1/2 tsp ginger powder
- 1/2 tsp Sichuan peppercorn powder
Sesame Baked Tempeh
- 200 g (1 pack) soybean tempeh
- 1 tsp tamari
- 1/2 tsp Shaoxing rice wine (sub dry sherry for gluten-free)
- 1/4 tsp toasted sesame oil
- 1/8 tsp Chinese five spice
- 100 g (1 medium) red bell pepper, peeled, seeded and medium dice
- 2 no birdseye chilli, seeded and finely sliced
- 3 no spring onion, white and light green parts, finely sliced
- 1 handful cilantro, stems and leaves, coarsely chopped
Mala Activated Cashews
Prepare marinade. In a bowl, stir together all the ingredients except the cashews.
Season cashews. Drain, rinse, and pat dry the cashews. Add the cashews to the bowl with the marinade. Toss to coat evenly.
Dry cashews. Transfer the seasoned cashews onto Paraflexx sheets. Dehydrate at 41°C (106°F) for 24hours, or until fully dry and crispy.
Store cashews. Remove from dehydrator and let cool to room temperature. Store the mala cashews in an airtight container at room temperature. Best consumed within one month.
Sesame Baked Tempeh
Boil tempeh. Bring a pot of water to boil. Trim and cut the tempeh to 1.2 cm (1/2 inch) cubes. When the water reaches a boil, add the tempeh and boil for 5 minutes. Drain and rinse.
Prepare marinade. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, stir together the ingredients for tempeh marinade (tamari, rice wine, sesame oil, Chinese five spice).
Marinade tempeh. Add the boiled tempeh to the bowl with the marinade. Toss to coat evenly, then set aside for 30 minutes or longer to allow the flavours to infuse.
Bake tempeh. Heat the oven to 190°C (375°F). Place the seasoned tempeh on a parchment-lined or silpat-lined baking sheet. Bake for 20 minutes, or until the exterior is firm to the touch and just beginning to tan.
In a large bowl, toss together the baked tempeh, red bell pepper, chilli, spring onion, cilantro and a handful of mala-activated cashews. Transfer to a serving plate. Enjoy with rice, quinoa, or cauliflower rice.