Chinese food continues to become more and more popular in North America, with popular restaurants in small and large cities.
Packed with delicious, complex flavors, veggies, herbs, and spices, Chinese food makes a great addition to any weekly meal planning menu.
But with all the different dishes on the menu how are you supposed to decide on the best one for your taste buds?
Two of the most popular dishes are definitely Szechuan Chicken and Kung Pao Chicken, but how do you choose between them? Is one spicier than the other?
So, what’s the difference between Szechuan Chicken and Kung Pao Chicken? While technically Szechuan is a type of cuisine while Kung Pao Chicken is a dish, in Western countries Szechuan chicken is associated with a spicy dish packed with Szechuan peppers and dried red chilies. Kung Pao chicken is typically a milder dish made with orange juice, garlic, ginger, soy sauce, and little to no chilies or Szechuan peppers.
Read on to discover the differences in ingredients, spiciness, and flavor between Szechuan Chicken and Kung Pao Chicken!
What Is Szechuan Cooking?
Before we dig into the main differences between Szechuan Chicken and Kung Pao Chicken, I think it’s important to establish an understanding of what these terms actually mean.
The main difference is that Kung Pao Chicken is a dish, while Szechuan Chicken refers to a type of cuisine.
While both dishes are foods that North Americans associated with Chinese food, Kung Pao Chicken is a very specific dish, while Szechuan chicken can actually have more variations.
Szechuan cooking originated in the Chinese province of Sichuan. And actually, Kung Pao chicken is a Szechuan chicken dish, since it originates from the Sichuan province. So technically, Kung Pao chicken is Szechuan chicken.
When it comes to Szechuan cooking there are some distinct characteristics that define this cuisine:
- Typically uses spicy Szechuan peppers, garlic, and chili peppers
- Often contains mixed vegetables, mushrooms, herbs, pork, chicken, rabbit, beef, and yogurt
- Can use stir-frying, braising, or steaming as a cooking method
In Szechuan cooking, you will also find 7 basic flavors which include hot, sweet, bitter, sour, pungent, aromatic, and salty.
However, in North America, we often refer to Szechuan chicken as a specific dish as opposed to a cuisine.
So armed with our newfound knowledge, let’s dig into the differences between Kung Pao Chicken and Szechuan Chicken in North America!
What’s In American Kung Pao Chicken?
As we’ve discovered, Kung Pao Chicken is actually a very popular Szechuan dish. It is made from a list of distinct ingredients that give it a unique and delicious flavor profile.
North American versions of Kung Pao chicken are a little different and include the following ingredients:
- Diced chicken
- Orange juice
- Chicken broth
- Bell peppers
- Roasted peanuts
- It may be served over noodles or rice to make a complete dish
The versions often served don’t come back with the typical Szechuan peppers that are found in the dish when served in Sichuan.
What’s In American Szechuan Chicken
Szechuan chicken in North America is typically a much spicier dish than Kung Pao chicken because it is packed with Szechuan peppers and chilies. The ingredients in Szechuan chicken include:
- Cubed and battered chicken thighs- stir-fried to get crispy
- Szechuan peppers
- Dried red chilies
- Green onions
- May include vegetables such as carrots, onions, peppers, etc.
- May be served over noodles or rice to make a complete dish
What’s The Taste Difference Between Szechuan Chicken And Kung Pao Chicken?
Now that we know what goes into Kung Pao and Szechaun Chicken dishes, you might be wondering how they taste in comparison to one another.
The main difference between the two is that Szechuan chicken is typically going to be much spicier than Kung Pao chicken when bought in America.
The Szechuan peppers that give Szechuan chicken its name combined with dried red chilies make this dish beautifully spicy, but super complex.
Szechuan peppers have a flavor profile that is bold, fragrant, and spicy with citrus undertones.
When combined with the dried red chilies, they create what’s known in the food world as a numbing sensation on the palate/in the mouth that builds the more you eat.
Combined with the garlic, ginger, and green onions, you’re left with an absolute flavor bomb of spicy deliciousness.
Kung Pao chicken, on the other hand, is much milder in terms of spice.
Some places may add some chilies, but typically most American Chinese versions don’t include the Szechuan peppers, so while this dish is still flavorful, you don’t get that numbing sensation on the palate.
The taste is much more earthy and nutty thanks to the fresh or roasted peanuts (or other nuts), soy sauce, and garlic and ginger.
The orange that is added to this Westernized version does give that citrus undertone that you tend to find in Szechuan peppers, but without the heat.
Which Dish Is Spicier: Szechuan Chicken Or Kung Pao Chicken?
If you’re picking up your Szechuan or Kung Pao chicken in North America then chances are the spicier dish is definitely going to be the Szechuan Chicken.
Typically, it’s made with spicy Szechuan peppers and dried red chilies, which creates that tingly, mouth-numbing spiciness you either love or hate.
If you were to order Kung Pao chicken in China, especially in the Sichuan province, it would be just as spicy as Szechuan chicken since it would be made with the same chilies and Szechuan peppers.
However, in Westernized cuisine it is much less spicy.
Kung Pao Chicken on most Western menus is going to be a mellower dish to order, with more of the flavor coming from soy sauce, garlic, ginger, orange juice, and peanuts.
It’s still a wonderfully delicious dish full of complex flavors, but it is unlikely to be very spicy.
So if you’re looking for something to give you that numbing chili hit on the palate as you eat it, then I would go for the Szechuan Chicken whenever you see it on a menu.
How To Make Kung Pao Chicken At Home
If you want to try making a Western version of mild Kung Pao Chicken right in the comfort of your own kitchen, try out this home cook-friendly recipe. Feel free to adapt and adjust to your own taste buds and preferences.
Go check out your local International Grocery store to find some new ingredients.
- 2 pounds of boneless chicken thighs, cut into cubes
- 2 tablespoon Shaoxing wine or dry cooking sherry
- 2 tablespoon soy sauce
- 2 teaspoons baking soda
- 2 teaspoon cornstarch or corn flour
- 1/2 cup chicken stock or broth
- 6 tablespoons soy sauce or tamari
- 1/2 orange, zested and juiced
- 2 tablespoons Chinese black vinegar or substitute for balsamic or red wine vinegar
- 2 tablespoon Chinese Shaoxing wine or dry cooking sherry
- 1 tablespoon hoisin sauce
- 3 tablespoons sugar
- 1 teaspoon cornstarch or corn flour
Ingredients (Stir Fry)
- 2 + 2 tablespoons cooking oil, divided
- 8 cloves of garlic,
- 1 inch of ginger, finely minced
- 1 medium white onion, sliced
- 1 red bell pepper, seeded and diced
- 1 carrot, julienned or shredded
- 4 green onions cut into 1-inch pieces
- 1/2 cup roasted and unsalted peanuts
- In a mixing bowl, combine all of the ingredients under the chicken heading and set them aside to marinate while you prep the rest of the ingredients.
- In another smaller bowl, whisk together all the sauce ingredients until the sugar dissolves and then set aside.
- Heat a large skillet or wok over medium-high heat.
- Once hot, add the first two tablespoons of oil. Let the oil heat up and then add the chicken.
- Fry the chicken for about 3-5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Cook until the edges are browned and then place in a bowl. Set aside.
- Add the 2 other tablespoons of oil to the same frying pan/wok and return to the heat. Add the garlic, ginger, and white onions to the oil and fry for 1 minute, then add the remaining vegetables.
- Stir your sauce and pour over the vegetables. Bring to a boil.
- Once it starts to thicken, stir in your chicken. Mix all of your ingredients and cook another 2 minutes or so, until the sauce is thickened and everything has been coated.
- Stir in the green onions and peanuts and cook everything for another 1-2 minutes to allow all the flavors to come together.
- Serve immediately over rice or noodles.
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