Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Stir Fry - On the Grill - Kung Pao Chicken

Shhhh, I'm about to tell you the proverbial Ancient Chinese Secret, and no, it isn't Calgon. This is the secret to great stir fry were talking about--and that secret is, a real, honest to goodness Wok. We found you just can't do decent stir fry in a skillet--well, decent maybe, but not outstanding. You need a real wok for this, preferably a good cast iron or carbon steel one from China. It is the unique curved shape of the wok that produces the best stir frys.  Juices run to the bottom where they are super heated to become steam, while larger bits of food will cling to the sides (particularly with a hand hammered wok) where they crisp to a nice golden brown.

But wait, there's more. The key to getting that authentic stir fry flavor (what the Chinese call Wok Hei, or 'Breath of the Wok') is to get your wok really hot, and it is just hard to pull that off on an indoor stove, particularly if it is electric.
So what to do? Well, fire up the ole charcoal grill, nestle said wok down amongst the coals, and soon you'll have a wok that's hotter than the head of Halliburton in Hell, ready for your stir frying pleasure.

As you can see, an 18 inch cast iron Wok fits neatly into the brazier of a standard Weber kettle grill. Don't be alarmed that it's sitting right on the coals...this is what it takes to get that baby super hot...the kind of heat we need for 'Wok Hei.'   I got the idea for this from a picture I saw of a man in China cooking with a wok sitting on top of an old metal paint can full of coals.  Seemed like a cool way to wok.  The Weber grill makes it a little easier, though. 
I use about half the amount of charcoal that I would normally use for grilling.  I start it in a chimney, then spread it out in a circle so that there is a little 'bowl of coals' for the wok to nestle snugly upon.  After five minutes or so, we check the temperature:
Using the infrared thermometer, we can check the temp from a safe distance.  908 degrees Fahrenheit at wok center..yowie, that's hot.  Keep your arms and legs clear of the grill, kids.
So, now that we've got a hot assed Wok...lets cook something. How about:
Kung Pao Chicken:
1 lb Chicken Breast, cut into cubes.
Soy Sauce
Rice Wine or Mirin
Chicken Bouillon Cube, disolved in 1/4 cup water
Chinkiang Vinegar (balsalmic can be substituted)
3/4 cup dry roasted peanuts
peanut oil
minced garlic
minced ginger
diced dried red chilis
2 large bell peppers, cubed
1 large onion, minced (scallions are traditional, but we like the onion better)
Long before you've fired up that grill and heated the wok, you'll want to prep all your ingredients.  Start by cutting the chicken into nice sized cubes as shown below:
Mix a few tablespoons soy sauce with one tablespoon of the rice wine, a teaspoon of corn starch, and a teaspoon of sugar.  Marinate the chicken in this mixture for at least 30 minutes.  Meanwhile, mix the bouillon with 2 teaspoons of the vinegar, a tablespoon soy sauce, and a tablespoon rice wine.  Set aside.   
Since we'll be moving from the kitchen to the great out of doors, I find it best to not only prep all the ingredients ahead of time (a must with stir frying, even in the kitchen) but also to arrange them into a nice mise en place on a large tray that I can carry out to the grill, like the one shown below.
Pictured above:  Marinated Chicken, Bell Peppers, Onions (with a few scallions added), diced red peppers, minced ginger and garlic, peanuts, and the bouillon mixture.  Here we go:
When the wok is hot, swirl about one tablespoon of the peanut oil into it.  Add about half the garlic and ginger, and stir fry for about ten seconds.  Then carefully add your chicken mixture, spreading it evenly in the wok. 
Cook undisturbed for about a minute, then using a metal spatula, stir fry for one minute, or until the chicken is browned on all sides, but not cooked completely through.  Transfer to a plate or other container. (I use another one of our woks). 
Now, add another tablespoon of peanut oil, and the rest of the garlic and ginger.  Add the bell peppers and stir fry for a minute or so.  Add the onions and give them a minute of stry frying as well. 
Return the chicken to the wok, add the bouillon mixture, and stir fry until the chicken is just cooked through...about two minutes or so.  Add the peanuts and stir fry another thirty seconds or so. 
Voila...you've just made Kung Pao chicken:

Looks pretty, huh?  Tastes even better.  Serve with some rice, and you've got a nice meal with a far east flavor.
A few Tips:
When you slice your dried red peppers, use kitchen shears if you have them...makes the job a bit easier.  Also, you can leave the seeds in, like I've done below, if you like your Kung Pao to have some extra heat to it.
Also, if you don't wish to brave the outdoor grill, this recipe can be made in your kitchen...you just may have to lengthen the frying times a bit, depending on how hot you get your wok or skillet. 
If you do stry fry on the grill, use extreme caution...we are talking open flames here.  It is probably best to wear gloves while you're working, and be extremely careful when you add the oil to the wok.  I use peanut oil for stir frying, as it has a high smoke point and usually won't burn.  But, even with peanut oil, if the wok is extremely hot, you can get a brief flame up.  Nothing too dangerous, just be ready for it.  If it does happen, it should go out in a second or two, but it if doesn't, have the lid to your grill handy, and cover it for a few seconds.  Then proceed as normal. 
Flame on!  Here I've had a little flare up just after I added the chicken.  It went out after a couple seconds.  But I just wanted y'all to see that it can happen, so keep the grill away from covered awnings, and be ready with the lid if you need it.  Also, be careful when you swirl the oil in.  Do it toward the center of the wok, as you won't want to splash any down in the coals.  Also, a note on wok size.  I wouldn't use anything smaller than an 18 inch wok in a full sized Weber or similar grill.  You don't want too much space between the wok and the walls of the grill, as you'll get too much heat escaping there...less heat for the wok, and more for you to deal with as you stir fry.  If you have a smaller wok, you can use a smaller grill.  Our 14 inch wok fits nicely on the little Weber Smokey Joe grill we have:

So of course this means:
Two woks at the same time!  The smaller wok makes a nice 'side burner' for another dish.  We'll cover that one in a future post.  Until then, happy woking!


  1. Nice... interesting that you chose dry roasted peanuts, which are my favorite, but not what you find at the local delivery joint when making Kung Pao.

  2. Hi Jeremy,

    I went with dry roasted because it is simpler. I have roasted my own, and it comes out good that way as well.

  3. Hi Chris,

    What is the temperature of the 14" wok sitting on top of the Smokey Joe?

    1. Hi Peter,

      Sorry for the delay, I just noticed your post. The small wok on the Smokey Joe usually gets up to around 500 degrees F, not really hot enough to produce 'wok hei' like the big wok does, but it is fine for doing a side dish like long beans or fried rice.