I remember chatting with an online acquaintance several years ago. I had purposefully reached out through a cooking forum to a member who lived in Taiwan in order to ask a specific question about a mother sauce. We spent a great deal of time exchanging messages over a period of several months. I had known before our conversation that the takeout I enjoyed after a hard day’s work was not quite the same as the food he might find in a local restaurant.
Nevertheless, as the topic of our discussion steered towards my favorite dishes, I was still shocked when he asked me what I meant by “Szechuan chicken.” Over the next couple of weeks, he did his best to transcribe many Szechuan recipes so that I could learn what authentic Chinese food was really about.
I quickly came to realize that there were merits to both styles of food. Our Americanized stir-fry recipes were accessible, flavorful, and easy to make with ingredients I could pick up at the normal supermarket. On the other hand, the real Chinese Szechuan chicken is practically bursting with unique spices and presented in a very quirky way that forces your guests to really get to know the dish. There’s no real “correct” Szechuan chicken. Instead, there are simply two regional variations that you’re free to choose between.
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So what was the big difference?
How tough is it to make real Szechuan chicken at home? And most importantly, what ideas can you “borrow” from the more authentic recipe to make your Asian chicken stir fry recipes a little bit more interesting? Here’s everything that I learned about Szechuan chicken and why I think it’s so special.
What Is Szechuan Chicken?
The province of Sichuan (often spelled Szechuan by Westerners) is located in the geographical center of China. It’s traditionally been a culinary powerhouse, with a wide-reaching influence on the cuisine of the entire eastern coast of China. Szechuan cooking is famous within China for the bold use of both garlic and peppers as well as the use of two particularly distinctive ingredients: the Szechuan chili and the Szechuan peppercorn.
There’s no specific dish that you would ask for in Sichuan called “Szechuan chicken.” Instead, you might ask for deep-fried spicy chicken, three pepper chicken, or even Kung Pao chicken. From my experience, the dish you’re looking for is called “mala chicken,” although even that has some pretty stark differences from the Szechuan chicken you might pick up at the local Chinese restaurant.
In America, Szechuan chicken is a fried chicken dish that’s tossed with a spicy glaze, often red. It’s usually mixed with various stir-fried vegetables, like green peppers, carrots, and dried red chilis. The exact contents of your Szechuan chicken will vary quite a lot depending on where you are and who’s making it. There’s no real hard and fast rule that people use to determine whether or not a dish is “Szechuan” when they make their menu. Instead, they simply name a somewhat spicy chicken dish after the province and move on. As long as it’s delicious, nobody complains.
In China, mala chicken is a fairly specific dish that consists of fried chicken that’s practically buried under a mountain of Szechuan chilis. The chicken and chilis are cooked together, giving the bits of chicken a wonderful spicy flavor that’s not quite like anything you get from any other kind of chili pepper. Mala chicken has only a handful of ingredients: it’s basically just chicken, peppers, garlic, ginger, and a few minor additions like sesame seeds and scallions that are used to season or garnish the dish.
Still curious? Here’s how to prepare several of my favorite Szechuan-chicken like recipes.
Asian Chicken Stir Fry Recipes
Spicy Chicken and Stir Fried Vegetables
This spicy dish combines fried chicken with your favorite Chinese-style vegetables to make a wonderful entree that you can serve anytime. You can (and should) tell your friends it’s Szechuan chicken — because it is.
1 tbsp sesame oil
1/2 cup chicken broth
2 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp rice vinegar
2 tsp chili powder or paste (garam masala is fine)
2 tsp cornstarch
Combine ingredients in a medium-sized bowl. Let them rest and combine while you cook your chicken.
1 lb boneless chicken, cut into bite-sized cubes
1 tbsp canola oil (or another cooking fat)
Stir-fry chicken in oil or fat for about two minutes or until it’s about half cooked. Remove the chicken for a moment while you cook some vegetables in your pan.
2 bell peppers, seeded and chopped (feel free to substitute spicier peppers if you want more kick)
1 cup snow peas, cut into fork-sized pieces
1/2 cup onion, chopped
1 tbsp fresh grated ginger
1 tbsp fresh pressed garlic
a touch more canola oil or cooking fat
Add ingredients to your frying pan and saute over medium heat. If your pan gets too dry, consider adding a touch more oil or fat. Once the onions start to get somewhat translucent, add the sauce mixture from earlier and stir-fry for another minute or so until the sauce gets thick.
Next, add the chicken back in. Cook over medium for about five minutes or until the chicken is cooked thoroughly but still moist. Remove from heat and serve at once, preferably over rice with a garnish of scallions and sesame seeds.
Simple Glazed Fried Chicken, Szechuan Style
if you’re after something a bit more simple, this recipe has all of the other ones beat. It’s a no-frills combination of fried chicken and just the right amount of veggies and spices. Serve it as-is with rice or stir-fry with other ingredients that you have on hand for an incredibly easy dinner.
Coating the Chicken
2 lbs boneless chicken, cut into bite-sized cubes
3 tbsp cornstarch
Put the chicken and cornstarch in a bowl or a dry freezer bag. Toss until the chicken is coated in a fairly even layer of cornstarch.
Frying the Chicken
4 medium cloves garlic, pressed
1 tbsp canola oil (or another cooking fat)
Add oil, garlic, and the coated chicken to a preheated skillet over medium heat. Stir-fry until the chicken becomes lightly browned.
Making The Glaze
5 tbsp soy sauce
1.5 tbsp rice wine vinegar
1/4 cup water
1 tsp sugar, white
Stir the glaze ingredients into the skillet with the chicken. Cover the skillet and cook for about five minutes or until the chicken is fully cooked.
Adding the Veggies
3 scallions, cut into thin circular slices
a pinch cayenne pepper
Add the scallions cayenne, and a pinch of salt and pepper to your skillet and stir everything together. Let this cook for another minute or two and then serve immediately.
Adding More Veggies
If the above recipe is a bit too simple for you, consider adding some additional veggies to your pan. I like to throw a few green peppers and onions in with the chicken when I want more color. If I want flavor, I’ll add jalapenos instead.
Sichuan Mala Chicken Recipe
Unlike the recipes above, this one may require some ingredients that are hard for you to get at the local grocery store. You’ll definitely need Szechuan peppercorns, dried Szechuan chilis, and probably some dried Szechuan chili flakes. You can often find these at a local Asian supermarket. If you don’t have one near you, consider ordering these online. They’re not terribly expensive and it’s one hundred percent worth it to try this authentic recipe at least once.
As an aside, this recipe is somewhat authentic as far as the ratio of peppers to chicken goes. You’re not expected to eat the peppers (unless you want to). Instead, you and your guests are expected to literally pick through the giant pile of peppers to find the scrumptious nuggets of chicken hidden underneath. You can actually use a much smaller amount of peppers if you’d like without altering the taste. If Sichuan chilis are quite expensive in your area, there’s nothing wrong with doing this.
1 lb boneless chicken, cut into bite-sized cubes
1 tbsp Shaoxing (Chinese cooking wine) or dry sherry
1 tbsp soy sauce
Mix all three ingredients well, then transfer to a plastic bag and marinate for at least 30 minutes but no more than about twelve hours.
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp ground toasted Sichuan peppercorns (see below)
3/4 tsp salt
Depending on how you bought your peppercorns, you might want to toast and grind them yourself. You can use a mortar and pestle or even a clean coffee grinder for the grinding itself. As far as toasting goes, the best thing to do is to lightly saute them in a thin layer of oil until they start to turn brown. Discard the oil and then grind the peppers. Your cooking oil will take away a little bit of raw spiciness without diluting the unique flavor of the peppercorns.
In any case, combine all of these ingredients in a dry plastic bag and shake the bag until they’re well mixed. When you’re ready to cook the chicken, drain it, add it to this bag, and shake again until the chicken is evenly coated.
1/2 to 3 cups dried Sichuan chilis
1 tbsp sesame seeds
2 tbsp dried Sichuan chili flakes
1 tsp sugar
The dried chilis here are for both flavor and decoration, but you can definitely get away with only using a few if they’re hard to get. Honestly, I find that 1/2 a cup is plenty — you’ll still get plenty of unique Szechuan flavor. Regardless of how many chilis you decide to go with, mix these four ingredients together in a bowl and let them get to know each other while you cook the chicken.
1/3 cup frying oil
2 tsp Sichuan peppercorns
5 cloves garlic, pressed
1 tsp ginger, grated
4 scallions, chopped coarsely
Preheat a deep skillet over a medium flame. Once it’s nice and hot, add the oil, and when the oil has fully heated, carefully use tongs or chopsticks to spread out your coated chicken in a single layer. Let the chicken cook undisturbed until the bottom is golden brown, then flip with tongs or chopsticks. Once both sides of the chicken have been browned, cook it for an extra minute or two while stirring to ensure you get every side.
Remove your pan from heat. Remove the chicken to a bowl or large plate. If you’re running low on oil, add a little bit more to keep your pan well lubricated while you cook the other ingredients.
Return the pan to the heat, this time on medium-low. Add the peppercorns and toast them in the oil until they turn dark brown. Remove the peppercorns carefully while preserving the infused oil. You can carefully dry them and save them for later — you don’t want to eat them whole, but they’ll be super handy to use as toasted Sichuan peppercorns the next time you make this dish.
Add the garlic, ginger, and scallions to your peppercorn-infused oil. Once the aromatics become very fragrant, stir in the chili garnish mix from earlier. Stir continuously until the chilis start to get a little bit darker.
Add the cooked chicken and stir until everything is mixed together. I like to turn the heat off and let the pan rest for a minute or two to let the pepper flavors penetrate the chicken, but it’s honestly not necessary. Transfer the dish to a plate to serve.
Again, be sure to tell your dinner guests that they do NOT have to eat the Sichuan chilis (or peppercorns, should there be any whole peppercorns in your dish), nor are they expected to. Sichuan chilis have a very unique taste, but they’re too strong to be eaten in this particular recipe. If you’re feeling generous, you could even pick them out before you serve the chicken, but that undermines the uniqueness of the presentation.
Chicken Szechuan Style or Szechuan Chicken?
As you can see, there’s quite a big difference between Chinese Szechuan chicken and a more accessible Western Szechuan chicken recipe. While both dishes involve stir-fried chicken with bold flavors, the Chinese dish relies heavily on specific regional spices, while the Western ones are fairly generic.
The spice levels between the dishes are also quite different.
Mala chicken isn’t overpoweringly spicy, despite being served in a bed of peppers, but it still has a lot more zing than the mild Szechuan chicken recipe in the middle.
Personally, I remain convinced that none of these three recipes is “right.” I’ll cook all three for various combinations of guests. The first recipe is great for a more intimate setting where you want a complete meal, the second is perfect when I’m running low on fancier ingredients and I need a simple dinner, while the third is something that I love breaking out in order to amaze and educate my friends. I’ll never get tired of watching their faces as they try real Sichuan spices for the first time.
Dishes to Pair With Szechuan Chicken
All three of the recipes above go brilliantly with a simple side of white rice. In the case of the second two recipes, it’s a good idea to also include a mild vegetable dish to either accent or counterbalance the stir-fried chicken. There’s nothing wrong with simple steamed broccoli or asparagus. A cold salad also does the trick just fine. You don’t have to stick to a Chinese theme here, either: a regular old American salad still serves as a wonderful compliment to the dishes above.
Other Szechuan Dishes
If the more-authentic mala chicken recipe above reminded you of something, you’re not alone. The presentation of delicious, somewhat-spicy chicken among a sea of peppers is emulated in Americanized Kung Pao chicken recipes all around the country. Kung Pao chicken is, in fact, an authentic Sichuan dish. You don’t necessarily get real Sichuan peppercorns and chilis at your favorite nationwide Chinese food chain, but you do get a tasty dish that’s quite reminiscent of real Szechuan food.
So what’s the difference between Kung Pao chicken and mala chicken? Peanuts. Kung Pao chicken always has peanuts added to the pepper mixture in order to impart a distinctive nutty flavor to the final dish. It also tends to have more vegetables in the finished product, but you can certainly find both mala chicken with vegetables and Kung Pao chicken without.
If you’d like, you can even adapt the mala chicken recipe above in order to make something that’s pretty close to authentic Kung Pao chicken. Simply add some peanuts and chopped celery to the chili garnish mixture and otherwise cook as directed. You’ll come out with something that’s fairly authentic without a lot of extra work.
Is This Mala Chicken Recipe Really Authentic?
I’ve worked hard to present a recipe that straddles the line between accessibility and authenticity. While I don’t think anyone who was actually from Sichuan would thumb their nose at my recipe, they might remark that it’s somewhat different from what they prepare at home. This is normal — after all, I get told by my family members that the apple pies that I make are different from the ones that our other family members make at home.
Perhaps the least authentic part of the recipe above is how the spices and chili garnish mix are added. Sichuan cooks have lots of experience working with all of the spices and aromatics in the recipe, so they’ll add each ingredient to the pan at just the right time to fully cook everything without burning anything. This is, quite frankly, a lot of work, and it doesn’t change the finished product that much. if you’re interested in a more authentic dish, however, you’d want to add most of these ingredients individually so you can have more control.
The other un-authentic part of the recipe is how the peppercorns are handled. In Sichuan, you’d be expected to fish the peppercorns out of the served dish yourself. You wouldn’t eat them, but avoiding them while you eat the rest of the dish is part of the authentic Sichuan dining experience.
Finally, I didn’t specify a type of chicken to use in this recipe. In China, you’d see this made with bone-in dark meat. This is one of the most jarring parts of eating real Chinese food versus the Americanized stuff. In a real Chinese restaurant, you’re expected to carefully eat around small chicken bones. Boneless chicken makes the dish much more enjoyable, however, and your guests will only tolerate a finite amount of annoyance from you. I think I’d have trouble convincing most of my friends and family members to pick through a pile of peppers to find small pieces of bone-in chicken that they would have to carefully eat.
That said, I don’t think a real resident of Sichuan would mind the use of boneless chicken. They would, however, mind the use of white meat. Dark meat is used due to its higher muscle content and distinct flavor. If you’d like to make the dish a bit more authentic, consider eschewing chicken breasts in favor of boneless thighs.
For me, being authentic is not my primary concern. Instead, my goal is to transcribe the core ideas of real Szechuan-style cooking in a format that I can introduce to my family and friends. The mala chicken recipe above has been tremendously successful at doing just that. There are some differences between what I make and what you would get in China, sure, but most of the differences exist to help make the dish more enjoyable for me and my guests.
If you’re after more Szechuan-style dishes, look for things like Kung Pao chicken (made with Sichuan peppercorns and chilis), hot and sour noodles, dandan noodles, and a variety of heavily spiced meat dishes. Szechuan food often uses descriptive names like “shredded pork in garlic sauce” and “three pepper chicken,” so be sure to ask your local Chinese restaurant which dishes on their menu are influenced by the culinary traditions of the province. They’ll be happy to steer you in the right direction!
Why Is The Internet Obsessed with Szechuan Sauce?
In the late 1990’s, McDonald’s created a special sauce called Szechwan Sauce that they briefly served with McNuggets as part of a cross-promotion with the Disney film Mulan. They halted production of the sauce after the promotion ended.
Nearly seventeen years later, the Adult Swim cartoon Rick and Morty referenced the McDonalds sauce in an episode. Rick, one of the titular characters, has a dream in which he goes back in time in order to experience the taste of Szechwan Sauce again. The end of the episode references the sauce again, with Rick yelling about how he may receive Szechwan sauce again in some number of years.
The reference went viral. Rick and Morty’s rabid fanbase began to talk about the sauce on a number of social media platforms. McDonald’s showed that they were aware of this internet phenomenon when they mailed one of the show’s creators a 4-pound container of the sauce. This only fueled the internet’s obsession with obtaining Szechwan sauce.
On October 7th, 2021, McDonald’s ran a brief promotion at some of its store involving Szechwan Sauce. The event was a disaster: the company grossly underestimated demand, causing fans to stand in line for hours for a chance to receive one of 20 packets of sauce that were distributed to each location. Many of the sauce packets were sold for incredibly high prices at auction by scalpers.
While it’s pretty hard to get your hands on real McDonald’s Szechwan Sauce, it’s not too hard to make Szechuan chicken yourself at home with one of the recipes above. Personally, I think the recipes above taste better too, although I’m probably biased.
Szechuan Chicken: A Spicy Stir Fry For Everyone
While Americanized Szechuan chicken might not be authentic, it’s still delicious. All three of the recipes above give you a wonderful way to celebrate bold, spicy chicken stirfry. Both American and Chinese Szechuan chicken go great with rice and some simple veggies. You can use it as the basis of a quick, easy meal that you and your family will love.