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Why Chinese hate kung pao chicken (and foreigners love it)
A menu of cultural difference lies behind one of China's most popular dishes
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 (宫保鸡丁).
Facebook pages sing its wonders.
This mystic food is the simple gong bao ji ding -- chicken fried with chilies and nuts, better known to non-Chinese as kung pao chicken.
However, Chinese generally shun the dish.
They're baffled by its popularity abroad, and don't want it to represent their cuisine.
Kung pao chicken is the most culturally divisive dish in China.
So what's with the love-hate thing?
To explain the conundrum, we asked three prominent Shanghai chefs to chime into the debate.
The experts included Wang Lishi, manager of King Kong Eatery on Changle Lu, 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 Chinese food.
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.
These days, eating chicken is the norm, and people's tastes are evolving toward more sophisticated dishes.— Anthony Zhao, chef and restaurant consultant
“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 says 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's increasingly common among young Chinese to suspect that 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.
“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
There may be 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 aren't always positive.
Zhao explains that when the first restaurants opened their doors after the country's economic reforms, they all served simple dishes, such as 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 Chinese, kung pao chicken is a symbol of poorer times. Today's Chinese are eager to shake off the remnants of their indigent past.
However, the fate of kung pao chicken isn't yet sealed. Wang believes inflation in China could 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.”
Originally published March 2011, updated March 29, 2013.