Gongbao Cauliflower


I basically hypnotized myself into clanging up a good ol' gongbao; most of last month was spent manically writing a gastronomic guide for the Sichuan Tourism Board. Three weeks of being hunched over the computer, thinking "I got this!", then spending hours on the crappy Chinese search engine poring over a single street snack's history, its pumped-up "legend has it" tale, comparing three to five recipe variations for it to arrive at some sort of average/standard, then translating it all into English, then making sure that the English sounds native and keeps it casual (Chinese prose tends to sound unfortunately dramatic when directly translated to English.... see Chinese restaurant names and some of the huffy-puffy lines in the China Daily newspaper).

So, there's me sweating chili sweats, glasses sliding down my nose, over whether I can really push on with this, whether my Chinese is good enough, whether I'll make the deadline. The chili sweats start off as a phantom/placebo effect from reading so much about and looking at so many photos of spicy, red-oily food, and despite not having an appetite because of the stress and a recently broken heart, that's all I want to eat. So I whip out Fuchsia Dunlop's Every Grain of Rice and bust out the chili bean paste to make the classic gongbao chicken (also known and Kung Pao, but that was then, and this is now -- the standard Mandarin spelling). It's been raining for days -- unusual for Beijing -- and rainy climates, the Sichuanese say, make chili-eating necessary to dispel to wet coldness outside with buzzing heat within.

I don't normally keep meat in the fridge but also wanted to make a veggie gongbao, so naturally I used the chicken of the veg world -- mild and sweet cauliflower. Just burn the bejeezus out of it for roasted, wok-seared morsels that pick up the sweet-spicy glaze and go with the toasted peanuts so well. Just eat it right away because after cooking, the cauliflower will continue to sweat water and dilute the sauce. Not really a problem because this dish will, in normal circumstances, be devoured by the shovelfuls in minutes -- ahh, just thinking right now about taking a Chinese soup spoon to all those prettily peanut-sized bites of cauli, peanuts and leek. But a gloopy sticky problem if, like me, you were to tip it into a clackety takeout container, pop it in your bike basket and zip over to a friends house requiring two fast U-turns because the major intersections got you confused (but in the end, still delicious).

It's great with a small bowl of brown rice but I skip the starch and just shovel this, in the most elegant way possible of course.


Gongbao Cauliflower

  • 1 small head/300g cauliflower (be sure to use the Western type of cauliflower with fat, dense florets, not the type with slender green stems)
  • 50g/2 leeks (the type that is about the width of an adult's finger)
  • 20g/a handful of dried Sichuan chili
  • 1/2 tsp Sichuan peppercorns, whole
  • 35g/a handful of roasted peanuts
  • 1 tsp lotus root powder
  • 1 tsp dark soy sauce
  • 3 tsp light soy sauce
  • 3 tsp Zhenjiang black vinegar
  • 2 tsp Shaoxing cooking wine
  • 2 tsp grated dark palm sugar (I use this to replace refined white sugar)
  • 1 tsp black sesame oil or normal toasted sesame oil
  1. Cut the cauliflower into florets using a small paring knife and peel the chunky stems. Cut each floret down to 1.5cm x 1.5cm pieces. Do the same for the stems. Set aside.
  2. Cut the chilies in half and scrape out the seeds inside. Small chilies can remain whole and uncut.
  3. Slice the leek into stubby sections that match the size of the cauliflower.
  4. Mix the sauce ingredients: in a small bowl add the lotus root powder, then stir in the dark soy sauce, light soy sauce, Chinkiang vinegar, Shaoxing cooking wine, palm sugar and the sesame oil. Set aside.
  5. Heat up 2 tsp of rice bran oil in your wok or non-stick frying pan on high heat, then add the cauliflower and toss the coat with oil. Let it fry for about 5 minutes, tossing once in a while; you want the cauliflower to get smoky and scorched with a dark caramel color. Set aside in a bowl.
  6. Heat up another 1 tsp of rice bran oil and add the leeks; toss and fry for 1 minute.
  7. Add to the pan the peppercorns and chilies and stir fry for 1 minute.
  8. Add the sauce and the cauliflower, stir-frying for another minute or 2.
  9. Tip out onto your serving dish. Serve with brown rice or eat as-is delighting in its tantalizing tongue-tingling touch.