As one of the most popular and long-standing authentic Chinese dishes, Kung Pao chicken comes with quite a history attached to it. The only problem is that many Chinese citizens still do not know which story about the origins of Kung Pao chicken is true.
However, that does not stop them from repeating and enjoying the legends because they realize there is probably at least some truth in every story about how Kung Pao chicken came to be so popular.
Governor Ding Baozhen and the Qing Dynasty
Ding Baozhen governed China’s Sichuan province from 1867 until his death in 1877. He was already fond of chicken, peanuts, and spicy flavors when he decided to take up the hobby of cooking. One day while preparing food in his kitchen at home, Ding Baozhen created Kung Pao chicken for the first time.
Although the mixing of the ingredients that created this dish was not intentional, his guests loved the results. Kung Pao chicken became an instant hit with the family of Ding Baozhen and those in his social circle. Eventually the recipe spread to others in Sichuan and across the rest of China.
An Alternative Version of the Ding Baozhen Story
This version of how Kung Pao chicken came to be a beloved dish in China starts earlier than the one of Ding Baozhen accidentally creating the dish during his governorship. As the story goes, Ding Baozhen fell into a body of water as a boy in the early 19th century. Unfortunately, he did not know how to swim. A local citizen heard the boy’s cries for help and rescued him from drowning. Ding Baozhen was eternally grateful and vowed to someday find and honor the man who saved his life.
Several years went by before Ding Baozhen could find the man who had rescued him from drowning and thank him in person at his home. The older man served his guest a dish containing peanuts, diced and marinated chicken pieces, and extremely spicy Sichuan peppers. Ding Baozhen immediately loved the dish and asked his host for the recipe. He then began making Kung Pao chicken for his own guests and its popularity took off from there.
Kung Pao Chicken Outranks General Tso Chicken in Popularity
General Tso chicken is another popular chicken-based dish in China. Legend has it that General Tso chicken took its name from Zuo Zongtang, the respected general of Hunan. While Zongtang was indeed well-loved, the Chinese cannot find a connection that explains the naming of a popular chicken dish after him. This could partially explain why Kung Pao chicken remains more popular than General Tso chicken across the globe.
Chinese restaurants in the United States serve thousands of both meals every year. However, it wasn’t until 2005 that Americans got to experience what Kung Pao chicken truly tastes like when made with authentic ingredients.
The United States and several other Western countries banned the import of Sichuan peppers until then. With Kung Pao chicken now offering the same spicy kick in the United States as it does in China, its popularity continues to grow as people adjust to the intense heat of the dish to experience the rest of its amazing flavor.