Kung pao chicken by Corrado Michelazzo of Shanghai's Va Bene Xintiandi. Yes, even Michelin star chefs love this poor man's chicken dish.
It conquered the palates of generations of Westerners who grew up with Chinese restaurants down the street. Expats stroll around China in T-shirts emblazoned with its four characters. Facebook pages sing its wonders.
This mystic food is the simple gong bao ji ding (宫宝鸡丁) — chicken fried with chilies and nuts, better known to non-Chinese as kung pao chicken.
这道神秘的菜肴就是一道简单的宫保鸡丁—–将鸡肉、辣椒和各种坚果放在一起用油煎炒—-外国人更喜欢叫这道菜为kung pao chicken（宫保鸡丁）
However, Chinese generally shun the dish.
They are baffled by its popularity abroad, and don't want it to represent their cuisine.
Kung pao chicken is the most culturally divisive dish of China.
So what's with the love-hate thing?
To explain this conundrum, we asked three prominent Shanghai chefs to chime into the debate — at their own peril.
Our panel of experts included Wang Lishi, manager of King Kong Eatery on Changle Lu, the home of legendary kung pao chicken soup noodles; Anthony Zhao, chef and cuisine consultant at Ultimate Food Concept and kung pao chicken connoisseur; and Corrado Michelazzo, Michelin-star Italian chef at Va Bene Xintiandi, who also enjoys a bit of Chinese food every now and then.
我们的专家小组包括长乐路金刚餐馆的经理Wang Lishi，金刚餐馆制作传奇的宫保鸡丁汤面条；终极食品概念的主厨和烹饪顾问Anthony Zhao，他也是一位烹饪宫保鸡丁的行家里手；还有位于上海新天地内的华缤霓意大利餐厅的米其林星级厨师Corrado Michelazzo，他喜欢时不时地品尝下中餐。
Collectively, the panel came up with the three explanations for the kung pao controversy.
The chicken breast explanation
It’s no secret that Chinese would rather eat cartilage, bones, skin, bowels or any other (by overseas' standards) inedible bit of an animal, rather than a fleshy piece of meat.
According to Zhao, Chinese are reluctant to eat the meaty chicken breast, which is the main ingredient of kung pao chicken.
"Chicken breast in China is usually dry and tasteless," he says. “People here prefer the meat next to the bones because it has some juice.”
“Chinese customers generally don’t like chicken breast,” he says. “Chicken in China tastes too much like poultry for them. I have to import chicken from Japan for them to eat it.”
Outside of China, however, breast meat is among the most requested and expensive part of a chicken. This helps explain the success of kung pao chicken among foreigners.
“I also had a prejudice toward chicken breast, but then I tried one in Boston and thought, 'Hey, this is nice and moist,'" says Zhao. “No wonder Western people really like chicken breast.”
The intense sauce explanation
One of the most important features of kung pao chicken is its starchy, syrupy sauce.
Michelazzo says Westerners appreciate the dish for the balanced taste of the sauce.
“The sweet-and-sour flavor and starchy texture are typical of Chinese restaurants in the West,” he explains. “We like to associate those qualities with Chinese cuisine, even though that might not necessarily be true of Chinese cuisine here.”
Zhao makes the point that the distinctive sauce might be a reason for local aversion to the dish.
"To many Chinese, kung pao chicken is too saucy and intense, and you can only accompany it with rice," he says. "Very few Chinese would eat the dish by itself.”
One anonymous marketing expert says it is increasingly common among young Chinese to suspect restaurants that use intense sauce — such as is used in kung pao chicken — do so as a means to cover the taste of old meat.
While rejecting that notion ("We always use fresh chicken"), Wang Lishi of King Kong admits that the intense taste of kung pao chicken makes it increasingly unpopular among young Chinese.
拒绝接受这点（“我们总是使用新鲜鸡肉”）的金刚餐馆经理Wang Lishi 同时承认，宫保鸡丁的重口味使得这道菜在中国年轻人中，越来越不受欢迎。
“Around 10 years ago, to most Chinese, Sichuan cuisine only meant kung pao chicken and a handful of other dishes,” she says. “Now young people want something more delicate and unusual when they eat Sichuanese fare.”
The cultural pride explanation
Yet there is a deeper and perhaps more interesting answer to the kung pao dilemma. Kung pao chicken is a dish that stirs memories and feelings among Chinese that are not always positive.
Zhao explains that when the first restaurants opened their doors after the country's economic reforms, they all served simple dishes like kung pao chicken.
“At the time, chicken was rare and pork was the common staple, so we regarded kung pao chicken as special,” says Zhao. “But now, eating chicken is the norm, and people's tastes are evolving toward more complicated and sophisticated dishes.”
According to Zhao, to some people, kung pao chicken is a symbol of poorer times. Today's proud Chinese are eager to shake off the remnants of their indigent past.
However, the fate of kung pao chicken is not yet sealed. Wang believes inflation in China is about to elevate kung pao back to the top of the menu.
"Peanuts are getting more and more expensive," says Wang. “Soon a plate of kung pao chicken will become so pricey that people will stop thinking it's such a cheap dish.”
What a terrible article. It starts with a specious claim: 'Chinese people hate kung-pao' and then backs it up with equally incredulous evidence. "It's no secret Chinese would rather eat any inedible bit of an animal" I know this is the internet, but what about a little integrity? Do your articles always stink Ms Fenn, or were you hungover for this one?
真是篇糟糕的文章。这篇文章以一段似是而非的结论开头–“中国人讨厌宫保鸡丁”，然后又用一些同样值得怀疑的证据来支持这个结论。“众所周知，中国人更 喜欢吃软骨、骨头、皮、动物内脏或任何其他不能吃的一些动物”。我知道这是互联网，但是诚实点怎么样？Ms Fenn，你的文章总是这么臭不可闻么？或者你写这篇文章的时候喝高了么？
This is the silliest thing I have seen all day. Maybe Chinese don't like American "kung pao" because the foreign chefs make it WRONG?If you ever served gong bao ji ding in China with a "starchy syrupy" sauce, your customers would demand their money back.And I'm with Thomas – nobody working on this article thought to ask someone from Sichuan? That's like an article about pizza, and "forgetting" to ask an Italian.
The article is simply untrue, completely untrue. I live in Shanghai for 11 years now and I see Chinese everywhere in this city eat the dish for lunch everywhere. My Chinese friends love it and eat it often. That being said, the dish that they often don't eat very often is the Sweet and Sour Pork that Americans love so much. However, I do see it often enough too.
My objection to this writer is that she has invited three chef "authorities" to weigh in on the subject. Those chefs cook at three of the most exclusionary places in the city. Places where 99 percent of the city's 22 million citizen cannot afford to eat at. The author needs to get out more and stop hanging out at Xintindi for her 'news'. The readers here should know that Xintiandi is a Disney version of Shanghai where foreign business guys traveling here on their vast expense accounts go to eat with their new temporary Chinese girlfriends. It looks like a theme park. It is a highly sanitized version of Shanghai and China itself built for people who don't want to look at or interact with Chinese people or life here including the questionable health standards. 我之所以反对作者的观点，是因为她邀请三位“当局者”厨师参与讨论这个话题。这几位厨师工作于这城市最不大众化的三个地方。这座城市2200万人口中的 99%的人都负担不起这三个地方的餐费。作者需要得到更多的讯息，不应就从新天地这里推导出她“新闻”的结论。在这读这篇文章的人需要知道新天地就是上海 版的迪斯尼，很多外商带着他们新结交的临时的中国女友，用他们充盈的账户，来到这儿大吃大喝。新天地就像个主题公园。它是上海的一个高度净化版，是中国为 那些不想看，或不想与中国人民打交道，或不想生活在令人怀疑的卫生标准下的人而建的。
I wish this story interviewed some Sichuan chefs…many locals in Sichuan love kung pao chicken…