The Heat was On—and On…

I could’ve kicked myself… Recently, we were in National Harbor just south of DC for Russ’ 5-day NATCON conference with nearly 6,000 attendees. In years past, just as we did this time, our accommodations were at the gorgeous Gaylord Convention Center directly across the river from Alexandria, VA.

During one of our previous visits we had dined at Grace’s Madarin conveniently located across Waterfront Avenue. Upon entering, the stunning impact from a three-story waterfall and 33-foot Buddha greet you as you wind your way up the stairs to the eating area with panoramic views of the Potomac River from just about every table. This time we were dining with Russ’ fellow colleague, Dr. David Greenspan.

Because of our past history with the establishment, I didn’t feel it was necessary to concern myself with taking pictures for this blog. You may or may not recall a post from four years ago, “A Purse Chair?” In it I mentioned how the food at Grace’s was not necessarily a WOW factor. Well, our collective opinions were drastically altered and soared from mediocre to a definite WOWSER this time around, especially my Chengdu Chicken dish (new executive chef maybe?) But, as I said, I didn’t take any photos, so kick me now.

Russ and David’s dishes were also phenomenal but we agreed that mine was off-the-charts incredible, therefore I was on a mission to try and replicate it. After browsing the Internet for some recipes, we felt the one by Andrew Zimmern looked like the closest to what I had at Grace’s place—and with his culinary expertise, we knew it would be good regardless.


In his chile-spiked Spicy Chengdu-Style Chicken with Peanuts, “soaking the chicken overnight in rice wine and cornstarch makes the meat soft and tender. It also helps tighten the sauce and gives the chicken a twice-cooked slippery quality that’s a sign of good Chinese wok cookery.” We had pretty much all of the ingredients on hand—yes, it’s quite a lengthy list—except we were out of fermented chile bean paste and didn’t have black vinegar.

Because you need to marinate the cubed chicken overnight, Russ made a quick trip to our local Asian mart to get them. When it’s time to begin cooking, make sure you have all of your ingredients prepped before you start, once the wok is hot, this dish comes together in mere minutes. And be sure to time your rice so that it’s ready as soon as you’re done theatrically flipping the wok spatula.

How’d it turn out? Well let’s just say I overdid the peppers to the point of bringing tears to Russ’ eyes! I did have a reason to increase the spice so it’s not like I sabotaged the dish on purpose. Because the amount of chicken was almost double what was called for, I mentally justified that it could stand for more sauce, which included an additional tablespoon of the chili sauce.

Plus, since our dried chiles hadn’t added much of a punch when last used in cooking, while at the Asian mart Russ picked up some more dried chiles, Mexican arbols to be exact. And not making the connection that these new chiles would be much more intense, I tripled, or even quadrupled the amount. Suffice it to say, our nasal passages were clear as a whistle when done eating 😉

If you negate the heat, the taste itself was quite good. So take my word for it, follow the recipe exactly—I will heed my own warning next time because I intend to master Chengdu Chicken

BTW, the purse chairs, below, were still doing their duty at Grace’s Mandarin but I didn’t need one because our table was up against a large window and had an appropriate-sized ledge that served the purpose.


Spicy Chengdu-Style Chicken with Peanuts

  • Servings: 4
  • Difficulty: moderate
  • Print


  • 20 to 24 ounces diced skinless chicken breast and thigh meat
  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 3 tablespoons shaoxing or sake (rice wine)
  • 2 tablespoons toban djan (doban), fermented chile bean paste
  • 2 tablespoons dark soy
  • 2 tablespoons black vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar
  • 4 tablespoons whole fermented salted Chinese black beans
  • 2 tablespoons Szechuan peppercorns, crushed
  • 12 dried whole Chinese chiles (tsin-tsin chiles or Mexican arbols work well)
  • 1 tablespoons sliced ginger
  • 1 tablespoons sliced garlic
  • 1/3 cup shelled peanuts (skinless)
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 4 tablespoons peanut oil
  • 1 cup chopped scallions
  • Cooked white rice for serving


  1. Combine the chicken, cornstarch, 1 tablespoon of the toban djan and rice wine, and mix well in a large Ziploc bag or bowl. Cover/seal and place in fridge for 24 hours.
  2. Drain chicken and discard any remaining marinade.
  3. Preheat wok over high heat for several minutes.
  4. Combine the remaining toban djan, soy, brown sugar, vinegar and black beans in a bowl. In a separate bowl, combine the peppercorns, dried chiles, ginger, garlic, peanut, white pepper and sugar. Reserve both bowls.
  5. When the wok is very hot, add the peanut oil and swirl. It should smoke and ripple immediately.
  6. Add the bowl of peppercorns, dried chiles, ginger, garlic, peanut, white pepper and sugar. Swirl in wok. They should scorch immediately.
  7. Add the chicken and 2/3 of the scallions. Let the chicken scorch and wok toss until cooked through (about 2-3 minutes). Use wok tools so you don’t break the chiles and can scrape across sides and bottom of the wok safely.
  8. Add the bowl of liquid seasonings to the wok. Toss and cook for another minute or two. The sauce should reduce and tighten to a glaze.
  9. Toss in the remaining scallions and immediately spill contents out on a platter and serve with white rice.

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