Thursday, 9 May 2013

Gong Bao Chicken, Burmese Style

Gong Bao or Kung Pao Chicken

As a child, my musical tastes were dictated by my parents. Having arrived in the UK just before I was born, their choices largely consisted of the "safe" Western music that had been allowed into Burma - for example, ABBA, Andy Williams and a certain Cliff Richard - as well as old-time Burmese songs dating from before World War II as far as I could tell.

Later on however, as we kept in touch with the family back home, our playlists began to be dominated by a man called Zaw Win Htut

I say 'a man' - he was (and still is) vaunted as a rock legend - a Burmese Bruce Springsteen at the height of his powers. I adored every single one of his songs - the ballads and the anthems - and I would lustily yell along to the many tapes we brought back from our visits to the old country.

One fine day here though, I remember very clearly we were in the car on the way to see some cousins. We had the radio on for once, and suddenly the voice of John Lennon filled the air. 

Confusion clouded my features, till I unwrinkled my brow and suddenly yelped, "Hey, this is a cover of one of Zaw Win Htut's songs. I never realised he was so famous".

Of course, I was wrong. In fact, this was just the first time I'd heard the original version of "The Ballad of John and Yoko". Zaw Win Htut's version was the cover, not The Beatles'.

The Beatles with The Ballad of John and Yoko

Zaw Win Htut's cover of The Ballad of John and Yoko

My youthful world came tumbling down*

"Cocaine" was actually an Eric Clapton song. "The First Cut is the Deepest", a Rod Stewart number.
And a few years later, I had another rude epiphany when I finally twigged that one of my favourite dishes jet thar gohn baon-ji jaw was actually a culinary cover version of the Szechuan / Sichuan dish gong bao chicken (or Kung Pow as the Americans would have it).

But you know what? I still prefer Zaw Win Htut, and I still prefer this Burmese version of gong bao chicken. 

Neither may be as edgy as the original, but there's a sweetness to both that is irresistible.

Je(t)-thar Goh(n) Bao(n)-ji Jaw 
(Burmese Kung Pao Chicken)

Serves 4-6

  • 1 kg boneless chicken thighs, sliced into 1 inch long strips (remove the skin and use for cock scratchings)
  • 2 medium white onions, diced into large wedges/chunks 
  • Handful of chopped spring onions
  • 4 dried fat red chillies (smoky is good - all Oriental supermarkets sell in bags)
  • 4 thick slices of ginger (50p size), peeled
  • 1 tbsp dark soy sauce 
  • 1 tbsp light soy sauce 
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • Pinch of MSG or 1 tsp Marigold bouillon

Heat the oil and fry the chillies till they become smoky and fragrant and then set aside. 

Add the sugar to the oil and reheat. Add the chicken and fry until all the liquid that comes out of the meat is reduced to a sticky sauce. 

Next add the ginger, onions, MSG if using, dark and light soy sauce and then stir-fry for another 5 minutes.

Make sure the onion chunks retain some bite - you don't want them to brown or become translucent.

Sprinkle with the spring onions and serve immediately with steamed rice.

Zaw Win Htut's cover of The First Cut is the Deepest

*As an interesting side-note, Zaw Win Htut's Wikipedia entry states "[l]ike most Burmese pop singers, Zaw Win Htut became famous with Burmese language covers of foreign (mostly Western rock and pop) hits" but unlike most he "was actually embarrassed about it" saying that singing those songs was "like wearing someone else's shirt".


  1. This sounds really good! I've never had the American/Chinese version so for me this will be the original!

  2. OMG, you had to listen to Cliff Richard?

  3. Oh dear... More disillusionment to come... JJ Cale wrote Cocaine, not bloody Eric pile of plop Clapton -

    And I don't think Rod Stewart wrote First cut is the deepest either...

  4. I'll try this - as someone whose parents bought her the "Top of the Pops" cover albums of the UK hits, I feel some empathy :)

  5. Coming from a classical/live music background, I have never been able to help feeling that the whole 'cover version' snobbery is a bit ridiculous...
    Is only one person ever allowed to sing every song? That's nuts, no?
    If every symphony/opera/whatever was only ever performed once, in one style/interpretation, surely that would be ridiculous.
    Sure - there are performances of things that are regarded as more or less definitive, but even these change fairly rapidly.

    I feel a bit the same about the whole concept of 'manufactured music' generally. Again - you wouldn't expect a big orchestra (or even a little string quartet necessarily) to get together without auditions and you certainly wouldn't require them to write their own material or similar - I don't really understand the fixation with bands/groups/singers having to emerge organically... Surely all that matters is that the end product is good, no?

    OK - incoherent rant over - the chicken looks delicious AND these are all ingredients currently resident in my fridge :)

    1. You're right, really. It is all just snobbery. I was still fairly outraged that he didn't sing them first though ;P

  6. Sadly my parents also listened to Cliff Richard when I was a kid!

    Might have to give this a go this weekend, sounds great

  7. Looks just gorgeous. Not going to ask at what hours, of what day you were able to write this. x

    1. She slept through last night! :)

  8. Thanks for the smile this morning! This dish, by the way looks delish. What is "Marigold bouillon" though?

    1. It's a wonderful powdered vegetable stock that comes in a tub - see - not sure what the Canadian equivalent would be?

  9. Great post and delicious-looking food.

  10. Never thought of using stock powder or cubes as seasoning. Thank you for a brilliant idea and recipe.
    And all the ingredients are readily available too ;-)

  11. I Will be giving this a try! I always struggle to find dried red chillies that aren't tiny. Have you ever tried to dry your own?

    I'm running a competition with Sainsburys over on my blog you could win £50 for submitting your dish

    Ends tonight but i've only had a few entries so the odds of winning are good!


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