Traditionally, the five flavors in Chinese cookery are salty, sour, sweet, spicy and bitter. Where a single meal should present a balance of these elements, it's remarkable when a single sauce embraces all five, and in a humble street snack at that.
Today, where most bang bang chicken vendors sell from name-brand stalls at morning markets, their history runs deep. Ingenious Southwestern cooks during the Ming Dynasty struck alchemy: simple poached chicken and a combination of soy sauce, sugar, vinegar, chile oil, Sichuan peppercorn and sesame paste.
Virtually every modern bang bang vendor has a unique twist on the formula, yet the ingredients and overall effect remain. (And, in case you're wondering, it's quite different from Laotian bang bang sauce, which doesn't include a creamy element.)
When I began my China wandering in the 1990s, I enjoyed more than my fill of devilishly spicy Sichuan specialties. But the first time I tried a properly dressed bang bang chicken, it was as if my palate had suddenly graduated from grammar school, skipped high school entirely and was now enlisted in Sichuan University.
My understanding of Sichuan cuisine moved from the idea of the stereotypical incendiary fare to the appreciation of it as a rich and complex cuisine that just so happened to occasionally burn the tongue out of your mouth. There is hardly another Chinese sauce that evokes such perfection: spicy but not burning, sweet but not cloying, bitter but not disarming, sour but not puckering, salty but not oceanic.
Most of my barbecue slatherings from cookouts past sang a single note of sweet, sour or spicy with maybe a bit of overlap. Bang bang sauce changes the tune by bringing along bitter and salty for perfect harmony.
. By the way, if you're going to call it bang bang, at least be sure to give the chicken a good pounding. Gotta make some noise.
GRILLED BANG BANG CHICKEN
MAKES: 4-6 servings Bang Bang dressing is a solid match for chicken hot off the grill, but it also pairs brilliantly with poached or roasted poultry, toasty vegetables and tofu.
Sichuan Chile Oil makes a great accompaniment for this chicken and sauce; you can also use it instead of the store-bought red chile oil.
Make Ahead: If you are using bamboo/wooden rather than metal skewers, you'll need to soak them for at least 30 minutes before you grill. You will have plenty of dressing left over, which can be refrigerated for up to 1 week.
FOR THE DRESSING
- 1 cup well-stirred tahini or creamy peanut butter
- 1 cup low-sodium soy sauce
- 1/3 cup plain rice vinegar
- 1/3 cup toasted sesame oil
- 1/3 cup sugar
- 1/3 cup red chile oil
- 2 teaspoons ground Sichuan peppercorns (optional)
FOR THE CHICKEN
- 6 boneless, skin-on chicken thighs (about 1 1/2 pounds total)
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 4 scallions (white and green parts), thinly sliced, for garnish
For the dressing: Whisk together the tahini or peanut butter, soy sauce, vinegar, toasted sesame oil, sugar, red chile oil and the ground Sichuan peppercorns, if using, until the sugar has dissolved.
For the chicken: Prepare the grill for direct heat; preheat to medium-high (375 degrees).
Prep the chicken one of two ways: Pound the chicken thighs to 1/3-inch thick and thread each onto two parallel skewers, which helps keep them flat, or you can cut the chicken into 1-inch chunks and evenly thread on the pieces, kebab-style. For either way, leave a few inches empty at the end of each skewer, to serve as a handle. Lightly season the skewered chicken with salt.
Place the skewers on the grate; close the lid and cook for 3 to 5 minutes per side. If they brown too quickly, shift them off direct heat for 30 to 45 seconds, then back on again. You're looking for some char and meat that is just cooked through (165 degrees on an instant-read thermometer).
Transfer the chicken skewers to a platter. Immediately brush the chicken with a generous amount of the dressing, then top with sliced scallions and serve. Pass the remaining dressing and the Sichuan Chile Oil, if using, at the table.
Nutrition (based on 6 servings using half the sauce) | Calories: 520; Total Fat: 39 g; Saturated Fat: 7 g; Cholesterol: 155 mg; Sodium: 960 mg; Carbohydrates: 15 g; Dietary Fiber: 2 g; Sugars: 6 g; Protein: 34 g.
SICHUAN CHILE OIL
MAKES: 32 servings (about 2 cups)
It would be best to cool the covered chile oil in a safe, well-ventilated place, as any escaped vapors from hot chile oil may be a bit tough on the lungs.
MAKE AHEAD: The chile oil can be stored in a glass jar (with a tight-fitting lid) in a cool, dark place for up to 6 months.
- 2 cups vegetable or canola oil
- One 3-inch cinnamon stick
- 5 whole star anise
- 3 tablespoons whole Sichuan peppercorns
- 1 cup crushed red pepper flakes
Combine the oil, cinnamon, anise and Sichuan pepper in a pot over medium-low heat. Once the mixture is just heated through, reduce the temperature to low and cook for 30 minutes.
Place the crushed red pepper flakes in a heatproof mixing bowl, then place a fine-mesh strainer over the bowl. Carefully pour the aromatic-flavored oil through the strainer, then discard the aromatics in the strainer and remove the strainer.
Stir the mixture and allow it to cool for 2 hours before pouring the chile oil (with its crushed red pepper flakes) into a jar.
Nutrition | Per tablespoon serving: 130 calories, 0 g protein, 2 g carbohydrates, 14 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 0 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 0 g sugar