Stir frying doesn’t have to be a mystery. We show you how to make a great version of Hunan chicken with green beans. With just a few moves of the knife, a little organization and a decent wok, you too can make a great Chinese style stir fry at home.
Most Americans are familiar with Sichuan food. The cuisine from China’s Southwestern province is famous for its combination of chili fire and numbing heat. We can taste what’s called the Ma La profile in dishes like Dan Dan Mian (Dan Dan Noodles), Ma Po Tofu and Sichuan Hotpot in cities around the world.
But what about Hunan Cuisine?
The country’s central province may provide the answer for those who want to enjoy their Asian food with a generous amount of chili heat and a pleasant touch of sourness but without the numbing of Sichuan pepper. However, for those like us who are yet to visit Hunan, the province remains a bit of an enigma relegated to American Chinese restaurant names and menu items.
We’ve eaten our way through China twice in cities like Bejing, Chengdu, Hangzhou, Shanghai and Xi’An. Next time, we re eating in Changsha or another Hunan city too.
Our Journey to Hunan Food
After two trips to China, our unrelenting Chinese food obsession has been fueled by all sorts of media in books, on the web and especially on YouTube. Part of this exploration has involved watching one of our favorite Chinese chefs, Wang Gang, explore Hunan with the goal of understanding a classic dish of the province – Hunan Blood Duck. (Be warned, this video and, especially the video recipe that follows it, are graphic.)
Yes. Your eyes are not mistaken. This famous Hunan dish features a whole duck, bones and all, stir fried and served in a sauce made with duck blood. The dish is fascinating, purely Chinese and something we would never encourage anyone to cook at home.
That being said, we always walk away from these lessons with ideas on how to compose dishes to suit our western palates. In this case, we were fascinated by the way that Hunan chefs cut long beans into half inch cylinders. We were also intrigued by the concept of dry frying, a simple seasoning technique that conveys spices more directly than via a liquid sauce.
Using that knowledge, we decided to create a simpler, more accessible dish.
Our goal was to develop a spicy dish that we could make any day of the week. We decided to use chicken, a protein that’s readily available around the world and typically less expensive than duck.
To cook this dish in true Chinese fashion, we followed Chef Wang’s lead as well as the ‘shape rule’; however, we cooked our protein without bones to make the dish more enjoyable to western eaters like us.
The end result is a simple, spicy dish with no blood necessary. We call it Hunan Chicken Green Bean Stir Fry and it tastes great.
The Shape Rule
The shape rule is a Chinese cuisine principle which ensures that dishes have a unifying appearance. It’s zen, with certain vegetables and proteins providing yin to the accompanying yang.
Since we cut the green beans or long beans up into small cylinders in this spicy Hunan Chicken recipe, we also dice the chicken breast into a similar shape. The combination creates a uniformity that looks fantastic over rice and is both wonderful and fun to eat with chopsticks.
Hunan Chicken Ingredients
You’ll need the following ingredients for this recipe:
While this recipe’s ingredient list may seem extensive, most of the required items are key elements of any Chinese pantry. Once you buy everything for this recipe, you’ll be well on your way to creating a Chinese panty in your kitchen.
Although chicken is the primary ingredient in this recipe, we only use one boneless skinless chicken breast. Since the dish is served with rice, one chicken breast easily stretches to feed two people.
You can substitute two boneless skinless chicken thighs if you prefer dark meat.
Traditionally, this type of dish would be cooked with Chinese long beans in Hunan. Indeed, when we initially developed this dish, we made it with long beans too.
However, we appreciate that long beans aren’t readily available around the world. With that in mind, we made our next rendition with green beans and were pleased with the results.
Flavors – Sweet, Sour, Spicy and Umami
Most Chinese stir fries feature four elements of flavor – sweet, sour, spicy and umami.
While Hunan dishes don’t have the numbing flavors we normally associate with Sichuan cuisine, they can be spicy in their own right. To honor this tradition, we add about a quarter teaspoon of Chinese chili flake to our stir fry. We also add red Thai chilies for a burst of fresh heat.
Our Hunan style chicken gets its sweetness from sugar and its sour acidity from a good amount of black vinegar. While we’ve omitted elements like chili bean paste and oyster sauce, the stir fry dish achieves a level of mild umami from dark and light soy sauces.
We also deglaze our wok with Shaoxing wine because that’s we we do when we stir fry Chinese food in a wok. The cooking wine has a salty, slightly metallic flavor. We would never drink the stuff but it adds a distinctive flavor that we like in this and other Chinese dishes.
Sauces and seasonings
Just because we’re ‘dry frying’ doesn’t mean we’re not using any sauces. We’re just using less.
Our recipe for Hunan chicken calls for a combination of Shaoxing wine (which also deglazes the wok), dark soy sauce for color, light soy sauce, a generous amount of Chinkiang vinegar, sugar to balance the acidity of the vinegar, salt, MSG (optional) and white pepper.
Just like in French kitchens and in other western cuisines, many Chinese recipes start with a “mirepoix” – a base of ingredients that give the dish a base of flavor.
In this recipe, we stir fry a combination of the white part of the scallions, crushed and coarsely minced ginger and minced garlic to create the mirepoix.
We like to use a combination of Chinese chili powder for heat and Thai chilies for freshness. You can modify the amount of each depending on your tolerance and preference for piquancy.
Mise en Place
With wok-ery comes speed.
When all your raw ingredients are ready to cook, you have to move fast. In other words, you can’t chop garlic when your chicken is cooking. Due to the high heat, you literally have mere seconds to move from step to step.
The fun begins once you start cooking and the heat hits the wok with occasional flames jumping from the stove. When we say everything must be prepped, we mean everything.
→ Click here to buy a carbon steel wok and wok tools.
How to Make Stir Fried Hunan Chicken with Green Beans
Once you assemble the Mise en Place, the first step is to dice and marinate the chicken breast.
You’ll want to dice the chicken into ½” cubes before marinating the cubes in a combination of small amounts of dark and light soy sauces, Shaoxing wine, Chinkiang (black) vinegar, salt, MSG and white pepper.
Omit the MSG if you’re sensitive to the controversial flavor enhancer.
The next step is to brown the chicken cubes and remove them from the wok.
Put the chicken aside as it will be added later to the finished stir fry.
Next, cut the woody end off your green beans and cut the beans into ½” pieces. Are you noticing a pattern here???
You can blanch the green beans in boiling water for a couple of minutes if you wish. But, due to the small cut of the beans, raw green beans will cook thoroughly enough in the finished stir fry.
You’re now ready to assemble all of your ingredients so that they’re in close proximity to the wok. This is the Mis en Place that we explain above. Now comes the real fun!
Heat the wok. Once it’s smoking, remove it from the heat and condition it with a layer of cool oil.
You’ll next add half of the oil to the conditioned wok.
Place the wok over high heat and, once the oil is smoking, add the chicken.
Cook the chicken until the edges are brown and then remove the chicken from the wok using a perforated or slotted spoon.
Remove as little of the oil from the wok as possible.
If the wok looks dry, add one tablespoon of the oil. Add the scallions, ginger and garlic and cook until the mirepoix is browned on the edges. Next, add the Thai chili and Chinese chili powder.
Be careful not to breathe in too hard as the chili can be harsh on your senses. In other words, you might start coughing.
Deglaze the pan with Shaoxing wine.
Next, add the light and dark soy sauces, the vinegar, the salt, the MSG and the white pepper.
Add the chopped green beans and cook for about two minutes or until they’re tender.
Return the chicken to the wok and cook, frequently stirring, until the chicken is cooked through.
Serve with white rice and garnish with chopped scallions. Eat with chopsticks if that’s your thing. Otherwise, use a spoon so that you don’t miss any bits or bites.
Hunan Chicken Stir Fry Recipe
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About the Authors
Daryl & Mindi Hirsch
Saveur Magazine’s BEST TRAVEL BLOG award winners Daryl and Mindi Hirsch share their culinary travel experiences and recipes on the 2foodtrippers website and YouTube. The married Food and Travel content creators live in Lisbon, Portugal.