When I was a child and I was allowed to order something from the menu of a Chinese restaurant, my sisters and I took great joy in ordering Bang Bang Chicken. To us, it was a really funny name and luckily, it also tasted really good! We had to order it not too spicy as it is a Szechuan salad dish, but the real pleasure in the dish for us was experiencing the strange feeling of tingling and numbness in our lips that the Szechuan peppercorns gave us.
Szechuan peppercorns are not related to black peppers or chiles at all; they are actually the seed of a kind of citrus tree and should only be eaten in small quantities. They are usually ground and mixed with salt for dipping foods into and are a standard ingredient in many Szechuan dishes. There was a ban on them for many years and I really missed them once I used up the stores in my cupboard and was delighted to find them available again about 8 years ago. Szechuan food is some of the hottest in China. They make liberal use of hot chili oil and both fresh and dried chiles. I couldn't take the heat when I was young, but I am enjoying that special spiciness more and more now. It's a dish that I sometimes make for Chinese New Year too.
Bang Bang Chicken is a dish that I have enjoyed bringing to potlucks and serving as one of the salads in a buffet Asian style dinner because it is so easy to make ahead. It is composed of shredded poached chicken - the dish gets its' name from the sound of cutting up the chicken into shreds - and slices of cucumber, carrot and green onion. It has a sprinkling of peanuts and cilantro on top, but the special part of this dish is the sauce, which is made up of Chinese sesame paste (roasted Tahini is a good substitute), soy sauce or Tamari, hot chicken broth, chili oil, sesame oil, Chinese black vinegar and sugar along with the Szechuan peppercorns toasted lightly and ground up with a bit of salt. Some people use peanut butter as a substitute for the sesame paste, but I find it to be too strong for this dish as the sesame paste is just so much subtler and allows the other flavors to shine through. It can be served on top of lettuce leaves or even tossed with noodles if you want to make it a heartier dish. This dish may require a special trip to an Asian market for some of the ingredients, but it is worth it!
Bang Bang Chicken
1 pound Chicken Breast Tenders (or Chicken Breasts)
1 large cucumber, peeled, cut in half, seeds scraped out and cut into 2" thin strips
1 large (or 2 smaller) carrots, peeled and julienned into small strips about 2" long
3 green onions, stem end removed, cut into 2 inch thin strips
1/3 cup Sesame Paste (or you can use Roasted Tahini)
1/4 cup (about) hot chicken broth (you can use the poaching liquid)
1 Tablespoon Tamari (or Soy Sauce)
1 Tablespoon Chili Oil
1 Tablespoon Sesame Oil (the dark brown kind)
1 Tablespoon Chinese Black Vinegar (can substitute Rice Wine Vinegar)
1 Tablespoon Sugar
1/4 teaspoon Szechuan Peppercorns, toasted lightly in a pan and ground with 1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup raw peanuts, toasted in a pan and then chopped up (or use already roasted peanuts)
1/4 cup Cilantro Leaves
In a medium pot, put in chicken breast tenders and just cover with water. Bring to a boil and simmer for 10 minutes (20 minutes for whole breasts). Take out and cool and then shred with a knife. Reserve the cooking broth.
Place the carrots into a small bowl and cover with a small amount of the cooking broth. Leave for 5 minutes and drain. Put the cucumbers on a large platter, cover with the carrots and the shredded chicken. Put the green onion slivers on top of that.
Mix together the Sesame Paste, Tamari, Chili Oil, Sesame Oil, Vinegar and Sugar. Taste and adjust seasoning. Add in the Szechuan Peppercorns and enough of the reserved broth to make a medium thin sauce (it should continue to coat the spoon well (about the consistency of whole cream). Pour over the salad. Sprinkle with peanuts and cilantro before serving.
Five Element Analysis
Chicken belongs to the Wood Element and the vinegar adds even more. The cucumber, carrots, peanuts and sugar add the Earth Element and the hot Chili Oil and Szechuan Peppercorns contribute the Fire Element. The green onions and cilantro bring in the Metal Element and the Tamari and Sesame Oil and Sesame Paste contribute the Water Element. All five elements are present so this is a balanced dish all by itself!