When doing Whole30, there aren’t really options for eating Chinese food from restaurants, even if you are careful. Soy sauce is in practically everything, a lot of foods are fried, and the sauces are sweetened. I missed not having Chinese food, and knew there had to be a way to make some of my favorite dishes Whole30 compliant. I made this Whole30 Kung Pao Chicken for a Whole30 Chinese New Year potluck, and this won best dish for the evening. It even won a bag of kale! What better award is there to win than a bag of kale? I made kale chips, and patted myself on the back while I ate them.
Growing up, we ate a lot of Chinese food. When I think of comfort food, I think of Chinese food. Our favorite Chinese restaurant had many Sichuan dishes, and those were my favorites. Moving to DC, I had trouble finding good Chinese food. There were no good options in my neighborhood, and I was having trouble finding a good place in the city. Sure, there are a couple, but they are few and far between–far being the operative word for me, without a car. Having bad Chinese food was not an option for me.
How did I resolve this? I taught myself to cook Sichuan dishes! After buying Fuchsia Dunlop’s Land of Plenty, I enthusiastically jumped into learning how to cook some of my favorite classic dishes, and discovering new favorites. I really enjoyed trying new recipes, and one of my favorite dishes was her Gong Bao (Kung Pao) Chicken. This was not one of the dishes I had liked previously. When I would order it at restaurants, the sauce would be very syrupy and sweet, with not much actual flavor. In Fuchsia Dunlop’s version, I got Kung Pao Chicken with depth of flavor, that was spicy, sour, and sweet. This was a new level! Luckily, this flavor complexity is preserved in my version of Whole30 Kung Pao Chicken.
One of the things I love about Chinese cooking is the importance of how the food feels in your mouth, particularly the uniformity of shape of the different components. Since the cashews are hard and won’t be cut, the size of the other ingredients will be based off the size of the cashews. For this Paleo Kung Pao Chicken, cut the chicken breasts into 1 inch cubes to match the size of the cashews. I have a habit of cutting things too large, so I aim for 1/2 inch cubes to end up with the right size. I recommend cutting the chicken first so it can marinate while you prepare the other ingredients.
The same size rule goes for the garlic, ginger, and scallions. You’ll want to have these be able 1 inch long. The ginger and the garlic should be very thinly sliced using a sharp knife. While I think this helps maximize the flavor of the ingredients, the bigger benefit is that slicing them thinly will allow them to cook quickly, resulting in soft garlic and ginger. There’s nothing more distracting than biting into a thick piece of fibrous ginger!
The end result is a sweet and sour chicken dish with a good amount of spice. It isn’t too spicy, but definitely has some heat to it! If you’re a spice fiend like me, go ahead and add some more chiles, to taste. This is one of my favorite high-protein Whole30 meals!
Let’s talk substitutions to make this Kung Pao Chicken Whole30-compliant and Paleo-compliant.
- I think that every time I’ve had Kung Pao Chicken, its been with peanuts; however, cashews are also used in the dish in Sichuan, so I use them for the Whole30 Kung Pao Chicken.
- Instead of the typical peanut oil for cooking, I use refined coconut oil. When coconut oil is refined (instead of virgin), it doesn’t impart a coconut taste. However, one drawback is that coconut oil does have a lower smoke point than peanut oil, so you will need to watch to make sure it doesn’t start to smoke.
- Coconut aminos are a pretty standard Whole30 substitute for soy sauce, though you may have to go to a specialty or health food story to find them.
- Chinese black vinegar (Zhenjiang or Chinkiang vinegar) will often have malt or sugar, and I use balsamic vinegar to replace the complex Chinese version.
- Replacing Shaoxing rice wine with apple cider vinegar works well.
- Instead of potato flour or corn starch, I was able to find green banana flour, but arrowroot powder also works well. I chose green banana flour over arrowroot because the banana flour was cheaper and available at Safeway.
- Typically the sauce includes sugar, but the banana flour and almond butter do impart a good amount of sweetness.
* Yes, I am counting the bag of kale as the award this dish won. I now know what Roger Federer felt like when he won his first grand slam.