You can see Julia Moskin and three New York Times readers chatting with me about ‘Every Grain of Rice’ here:
And the full article, focusing on Gong Bao chicken, is here.
A brief note about substitutions:
Shaoxing wine: Cooking wine is widely used by Chinese cooks to refine and purify the flavours of meat, fish and poultry, which is why you find it in marinades such as the one for Gong Bao chicken. The most widely available such wine in the West is Shaoxing wine, which is why you find this listed in my recipes (cooks in Sichuan often use generic liaojiu 料酒 cooking wines which are not necessarily made in the Shaoxing way). Virtually every Chinese supermarket will stock Shaoxing wine, but if you can’t find it, use medium-dry sherry instead, or even omit it from recipes like this where it is used in very small quantities – we are talking refinements of flavour, and the recipe should still taste good without it. Dry vermouth may also be used, although I haven’t tried it myself. (There are, of course, some recipes from eastern China that call for larger amounts of Shaoxing wine, where is used as a key seasoning rather than a tool for refining flavours – and here, you do need the real thing.)
Chinkiang vinegar: Chinkiang (aka Zhenjiang 镇江) vinegar is a famous vinegar from the city of Zhenjiang in eastern China, which is made from glutinous rice and wheat bran. It is a classic type of ‘fragrant vinegar’ 香醋 with many culinary applications, and is widely available in Chinese supermarkets in the West. In Sichuan, cooks traditionally prefer a famous local vinegar, Baoning vinegar, which is made in northern Sichuan from glutinous rice and wheat. Baoning vinegar is hard to find in the West, and Chinkiang vinegar makes a perfectly acceptable substitute, which is why I recommend it in my recipes. I tend to look for Chinkiang vinegar made by the Hengshun brand, because I’ve visited the famous Hengshun factory in Zhenjiang and was impressed by the manager there. Chinkiang vinegar is normally easily available if you have access to a Chinese supermarket or an online store. If you don’t, then do use a regular balsamic vinegar as a substitute in recipes which, like Gong Bao chicken, require small quantities of vinegar. The taste won’t be exactly the same, but you will achieve the desired sweet-and-sour base for the sauce – and I wouldn’t let a lack of Chinkiang vinegar stop you making this dish. I try in my printed recipes to give an authentic version, as made in the source region in China, but like anyone else I often find myself cooking spontaneously in friends’ houses or holiday homes without exactly the ingredients I need, and like anyone else I improvise. A few weeks ago I made a Sichuanese ginger-juice sauce with balsamic vinegar, and although no one could argue it was strictly authentic, everyone found it delicious!
Chillies: Don’t get too hung up on chillies. With Gong Bao chicken, you want a gentle kick of chilli, but the exact degree of heat is a matter of personal choice. I suggest you avoid the lethally hot little Indian bird’s eye chillies, which are too strong for this dish, but do feel free to substitute whatever medium-heat chillies you have available, and vary the quantities if you please. I’ve used facing-heaven chillies, nameless long Indian chillies, Mexican de Arbol chillies and Chinese xiao mi jiao 小米椒 (‘little rice chillies’) in this dish. Again, not exactly as you’d find the dish in Chengdu, but perfectly delectable!
In general, as a writer I try to be faithful to my sources, and give the recipes as I find them in China (or, where I have to make substitutions, explaining this in a headnote). But cooking is a practical, daily life-skill essential to health and happiness, and strict authenticity is not the be-all-and-end-all of preparing food at home. So please, use my recipes as a guide, but if you don’t have exactly every ingredient every time, feel free to play!
Sichuan pepper: There is no substitute for Sichuan pepper, but I don’t see why you can’t make a scrumptious sweet-sour spicy chicken by following the Gong Bao recipe without it – just be aware that it’s not a classic Gong Bao chicken.
P.S. One of the comments below the post about me and my recipe for Gong Bao chicken says the following: “Her recipe, while tasty, is undistinguished… She seems to have been chosen as a featured author not because her recipes are outstanding, but because she is young and good-looking.” I have to admit that this made me laugh out loud! As someone who is neither particularly young nor particularly good-looking, but who has spent many years attempting to fathom the culinary mysteries of China, I’m not aware that I’ve ever previously been viewed as a bimbo who has climbed the greasy pole because of my appearance!! Priceless. I’m not sure whether to be flattered or insulted.