In my parent’s house, Chinese food is virtually synonymous with “leftovers.” My family has a habit of ordering far too much takeout and storing it in the fridge for days in little paper boxes. They respect Chinese food, viewing it as delicious the first time around, but for them, ordering Chinese is as much about convenience as it is taste. They love the fact that they can enjoy three, four, or even five meals by ordering a single one by putting kung pow beef over rice or reheating chow mein.
I would be a liar if I didn’t say that I occasionally mimic their practices. To me, however, kung po beef is more than just something to eat for several days. It’s a Szechwan celebration of flavor and spice that’s much more than the ingredients on their own. I love making a big pot of kung bo beef and sharing it with my friends, family, and even neighbors.
Most importantly, my recipe is incredibly easy. I’ve converted most of my friends to the practice of making this particular Chinese dish quite often (some of them make it for stir-Fridays, while others simply enjoy it when they’re hungry). With only a handful of slightly hard-to-find ingredients (Szechwan pepper, Chinese rice wine, and not a lot else), it’s very easy to make this delicious dish at home.
What Is Kung Pao Beef?
Kung Pao Beef is about as Chinese as spaghetti and meatballs is Italian, which is to say that it isn’t very Chinese at all. It’s a Westernized dish that’s based on the somewhat authentic Kung Pao Chicken (albeit with beef instead). It’s definitely not something that you would find on a regular basis in China.
Kung Pao Chicken was thought to originate in the Ch’ing dynasty. The Szechuan governor ‘Kung Pao’ loved one particular preparation of spicy, sweet, and sour chicken so much that it was named after him. It’s unclear how much truth there is to this story, especially since kung pao chicken is much, much more popular in countries other than China.
Finding The Right Balance
Some of you will no doubt be wondering why I would ever make kung pao chicken. After all, your experiences with the dish have been lackluster. You might have eaten excessively sweet beef with little flavor or a bland, sticky mess with a few dried chilis thrown in in a futile attempt to cover how boring and tasteless the meat was. Rest assured, not all kung pao beef is like that.
Instead, this recipe takes the time to do things right. We start with a Chinese marinade to ensure that our beef is tender and full of flavor, then round things out with a collection of spices and seasonings. The result is tender, tasty beef that’s absolutely wonderful on rice or on its own.
Kung pao beef is traditionally flavored with Szechuan peppercorns. These particular peppers add lots of flavor and create a mild numbing sensation when you eat them. This makes the experience of eating kung pao beef somewhat unique, even as it forces you to spend more time appreciating the other spices and flavors you’ve added to your dish. It’s also usually served with an abundance of dried red chilis, but these add very little flavor unless you bite into them. In order to actually change how your beef tastes, you’d have to break them open and mix in the seeds.
Despite these two chilis, kung pao beef isn’t especially spicy. Instead, the red chilis serve as decoration while the Szechuan peppers add a mild heat and a unique feeling. This means you can easily serve this dish to people who normally don’t like spicy food. Feel free to leave out the red chilis if you’re nervous — they’re mostly decoration anyway.
Kung pao beef is also loaded with roasted peanuts. These contribute a bit of crunch and serve as a bit of contrast to the flavors of the beef and the peppers. You can leave these out, too, but I would recommend leaving them in if at all possible. They add quite a lot of character to a dish that might otherwise be confused with other Chinese beef recipes.
Whether you’re serving kung pao beef with rice or on its own, it’s nice to stir fry a handful of vegetables to enjoy alongside it. You can simply cook these with the rest of your ingredients. Try using snow peas, bell peppers, asparagus, or broccoli. Feel free to experiment with all of your favorite veggies! It’s always a good idea to cook with fresh vegetables that you enjoy.
Kung Pao Beef Recipe
1 lb boneless beef, cut into small strips
1 green bell pepper, seeded and diced into strips
2 tbsp frying oil (anything with a medium-high smoke point works fine)
3 cloves garlic, minced
about 1″ of ginger, peeled and chopped finely
about 10 dried red chilis (mostly for looks, can be safely skipped)
1/4 cup peanuts, roasted
1/2 ground Szechuan peppercorns (pre-ground is fine, but you can also grind these yourself)
3 spring onions, chopped finely
1 tbsp soy sauce
2 tbsp sesame oil
1 tbsp Chinese rice wine or dry cooking sherry
1/2 tsp salt
2 tbsp soy sauce
2 tsp vinegar
1 tsp Chinese rice wine (Shaoxing) or cooking sherry
1/2 tsp white sugar
1/8 tsp pepper
A slurry of:
1 tbsp corn starch
2 tbsp water
For Chili Oil:
1/2 cup frying oil (again, high smoke point is best)
2 tbsp Szechuan peppercorns
up to 2 tbsp red chili flakes (to taste)
To Make Chili Oil:
You can make the oil up to a week in advance, so we’ll start with it here. Simply put the ingredients (oil, chili flakes, and peppercorns) into a frying pan and heat it until it starts to smoke. Remove from heat, let it cool, and store. Some people split the oil in half and make one batch with peppercorns and one with chili flakes, but I think it’s a better idea to simply use fewer chili flakes and make one batch of oil that’s just as spicy as you like it.
Mix the marinade ingredients (rice wine, soy sauce, sesame oil, salt) in a large plastic freezer bag. Add meat and mix well. Let this sit in the fridge for at least ten minutes. Kung pao beef isn’t generally a dish you’re supposed to marinade overnight, but you won’t really hurt anything if you let the meat sit in a flavorful tenderizing solution for up to a day.
To Make Sauce:
Simply stir ingredients together in a bowl. If your sauce is too thin, you can add the cornstarch slurry in a bit, but it’s best to wait until you’re applying heat.
Heat a small amount of chili oil (or regular oil) in a frying pan, then add your beef. Brown over medium heat until the meat is almost cooked through. Remove the meat and place it in a bowl for later (I use the same bowl that has my sauce).
Add a bit more oil to your pan to keep things nice and loose. Toss in your bell pepper and stir-fry until it’s soft and slightly translucent. Put the cooked pepper in the same bowl as your meat.
Add a third shot of oil and fry your ginger, garlic, and dried chilis for about a minute. Things should get quite fragrant here.
Once your kitchen smells absolutely delicious, add the beef, peppers, and sauce to your frying pan. Stir everything together and saute for a minute or two until the beef is fully cooked. If you’d like to thicken your sauce, now is the time to add your cornstarch slurry.
When you’re content with the consistency of the sauce, add the ground Szechuan peppers, roasted peanuts, and green onion. Stir, remove from heat, and serve!
Why Do We Remove The Meat And Peppers?
Truthfully, you can leave the meat and peppers in your frying pan while you cook the other ingredients. They’re removed here for the sake of completeness. If you want to make the best possible kung pao beef, you’ll want to make sure that your beef is tender and not overcooked, and that your peppers aren’t totally mushy and still have a bit of texture to them. If you leave everything in your pan for the whole time, there’s a chance that you’ll overcook one of these two ingredients and have a slightly worse experience. Again, though, feel free to simply leave everything in your pan and deal with the consequences. Your kung pao beef will almost certainly still turn out fine.
Kung Pao Beef vs Szechuan Beef vs Mongolian Beef
Kung pao beef is a Szechuan dish, made with Szechuan peppers. It’s supposedly named after a Szechuan governor. So how is it different from Szechuan beef?
Honestly, the biggest difference is peanuts. If you make kung pao beef without peanuts, you get something close enough to Szechuan beef that an expert might confuse to the two. Other differences include other vegetables you might encounter with each dish: Szechuan beef often has water chestnuts and broccoli while kung pao beef tends to have green peppers and not a lot else.
Mongolian beef is an Americanized Chinese dish that’s somewhat similar, although you’d have a hard time confusing the taste. Both Szechuan beef and kung pao beef are somewhat spicy, featuring a mild kick at the very least and quite a lot of spice in some kitchens. Mongolian beef, on the other hand, is often not spicy at all.
One other difference is the use of rice wine. Mongolian beef often eschews this Chinese classic altogether, while it’s a staple ingredient of the other two. Mongolian beef also tends to be served with fewer vegetables, although this varies quite a bit.
Of course, the Mongolian beef, kung pao beef, and Szechuan beef served in your area might differ from these descriptions a little bit. That’s fine! All three dishes vary a decent amount from city to city and state to state. They’re all very Westernized takes on Chinese classics. In other words, when you order one of these at a restaurant, you’re essentially asking for your local chef’s remix of a popular tune. Let him have some fun with it!
Using Different Chilis / Substitutes For Szechuan Chilis
Szechuan chilis add a bit of a unique taste to this dish, but I don’t think they’re worth going out of your way for. You can just as easily use something like a jalapeno, habanero, or serrano pepper and still come out with an incredibly delicious dish. The key is to understand what you’re dealing with and use the right proportions. The most important rule? Start small and taste things as you go. It’s much easier to add more peppers to a dish that’s slightly too mild than it is to take the heat out of a dish that’s too spicy.
My personal favorite variant of this dish uses toasted habaneros and cooking oil that’s been infused with the seeds and then strained. I found this out by accident when habaneros were on sale at the local grocery store. Since then, it’s been my preferred way to make it!
Do You Need Dried Red Peppers For Kung Pao Beef (or Chicken)?
Cooks will tell you that dried red peppers release a unique and wonderful aroma while they’re stir-fried. This is true. What’s not true is that this aroma makes up a substantial part of what your guests taste when they actually eat the dish. The truth is, whole red pepper pods barely affect the food that’s stir-fried right next to them. You’re perfectly safe to leave them out. The dish won’t look the same, and your guests won’t have to pick out the barely-edible pods from the food you serve, but otherwise, things will be the same.
Help! My Kung Pao Beef is Too Soupy!
Thickening sauces is an art that’s been around for centuries. This recipe calls for a little bit of cornstarch and water to be added to the sauce while it’s hot and stirred in. If you find that the sauce is too soupy afterward, simply add a bit more slurry. If you find that you’re adding quite a lot of slurry, consider simmering the sauce for a few minutes and letting it reduce.
Ultimately, the most likely cause of soupy kung pao beef is your beef itself. If you’re cooking your beef slowly from a frozen or refrigerated temperature, it’ll release lots and lots of water. Consider simply pouring some of this liquid off if the final texture of the dish offends you. Personally, I find that I’ve cooked off the liquid long before I add the sauce to my frying pan, but that’s me.
Things To Serve With Kung Pao Beef
The best thing to serve with kung pao beef is rice, of course. Have a big pot of fresh white rice to go along with this dish to ensure that your guests get lots of healthy carbs and that there’s something to absorb any extra sauce. The rice will also help balance out the spiciness of the dish.
If you’re not going to serve rice, one interesting idea that my friends have been experimenting with is serving kung pao beef in a burrito. Simply spoon plenty of beef inside a large tortilla and wrap it up. It’s an interesting blend of Mexican and Chinese ideas that’s not necessarily better than serving your beef over rice. It’s definitely different, however, and quite convenient to eat.
As far as vegetables go, I like to simply stir fry more veggies alongside the green bell pepper if I want more greens in my diet. You can add snow peas, broccoli, carrots, or just about anything else you’d want to eat. By adding them to your pepper oil coated frying pan and then sauteeing it in the sauce, you load your veggies up with lots of flavors and make them a bit more interesting than they might otherwise have been.
Dessert is up to you, but I like to finish my dinner with a big dollop of black sesame ice cream. You can find this at many stores or even make it yourself!
Kung Pao Beef: An American Classic
While kung pao beef might not be very popular in China, that doesn’t mean it’s not delicious. You can enjoy this Westernized dish in many parts of the world, especially if you’re willing to make it yourself. With a bit of practice, this dish is incredibly easy to make. It consists of boneless beef, marinated for a short time, pepper-infused oil, some garlic, some dried chilis, some peanuts, and a flavorful sauce. Throwing these ingredients together can be done in well under half an hour, meaning you’ll have plenty of time left over to enjoy your dinner after you make it.
For me, kung pao chicken is one of the fastest and easiest meals I can share with my friends and family. It’s a wonderful dish to add to your repertoire, whether you’re an experienced chef or a newcomer to the world of cooking. You’ll love how this simple, flexible recipe turns out!
Luisa Davis is a frelance writer and foodie based in Portland, California. Though raised on her mother's homestyle Italian cooking, she has spent most of the last five years traveling and immersing herself in other countries' cuisines. Her work have been published in various publications, both online and offline.