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Trader Ming’s (Trader Joe’s) Kung Pao Chicken

Trader Joes Kung Pao Chicken

Tastes even better than it looks.

This, folks, is a classy frozen meal. When it comes to frozen dinners there are many terrible ones and a few tasty ones – then there are the classy ones.  A classy dish is one that turns from frozen, straight-from-the-supermarket food into  something that makes you feel like a real person – a dish you’d be happy to serve your family, not just shovel into your mouth alone. Our old friend Hake en Papillote was such a classy dish, and TJ’s Kung Pao Chicken is another. It tastes so good, and cooks up so easily, that and looks so nice on your plate (peanuts and spicy red peppers included!) that you can’t help but feel like a skilled chef.

Before I get into exactly why this Kung Pao is so tasty, a few words on its history are in order. Like many traditional dishes, Kung Pao chicken has a fascinating story that needs to be heard. Kung Pao chicken popped into existence in the 1800’s in the spicy Szechuan region of China. It quickly exploded in popularity, becoming a darling of restaurants all across the nation, until it abruptly ceased to exist one day in 1966, and wouldn’t return to tables for two decades. This sudden disappearance was, of course, the fault of Ding Baozhen, an aristocrat who died in the Qing Dynasty nearly a hundred years earlier.

“Kung Pao” literally means “Palace Guardian”, which just happens to be the title that noble Ding, then governor of Shichuan province, bore. Due to reasons lost to time, Govenor Ding was bestowed the honor of having this delicious, spicy chicken dish named after him. Kung Pao glorified Ding on menus across the kingdom until the sudden, alarming rise of Communism in the mid 60’s China and the ensuing Cultural Revolution. The Cultural Revolution was a period of intense fanaticism in China, and chief among its various purposes was to unmoor modern China from it’s imperial roots. Practically, this meant rewriting all of Chinese history, right down to the incidentally named local fare. As a result, from the 1960’s to the 1980’s, Kung Pao, though still served, was no longer known as Kung Pao. Officially, it was now known as “Hongbao Jiding” or “Fast-fried chicken cubes”.

At the exact same time, Kung Pao was experiencing great turbulence in the immigrant kitchens of Chinese Americans. There the savory dish was suffering an identity crisis of similar magnitude as in China. While the name persisted unchanged, its ingredients started to undergo a radical revision. Authentic Chinese Kung Pao hinges on one key ingredient, the Sichuan peppercorn – an ingredient common throughout Szchehuan cooking. These peppercorns were responsible for the unique, tingling zing Kung Pao was supposed to have on the tongue and lips. The peppercorns flowed freely into American ports until 1968, when Uncle Sam slammed the door. The problem? A botanical ailment known as “citrus canker” was devastating American crops and Sichuan peppercorns numbered among the disease’s potential vectors. With the fate of the Florida orange at stake, Sichuan peppercorns had to go. For 32 years, all the way until the year 2000, the peppercorns were banned from these shores, forcing Kung Pao to mutate into a different form – the peppercorn-free, vegetable-laden dish we know today.

Communism has fallen and the Sichuan peppercorn is again freely available, but the path of western-style Kung Pao is firmly implanted in the American mind. This isn’t a bad thing – bringing a delicious new form of food into the world can never be a bad thing – and Trader Joe’s has mastered the medium perfectly. I’ve been known to bandy the word “mastery” around fairly lightly, but in this case it absolutely applies. I’ve sat down to a plate after plate of Kung Pao chicken in numerous Chinese restaurants and I can firmly say that, like  minestrone before it, the Trader Joe’s version is better than all of them.

I’ll be damned if I know how they packed that much goodness into a frozen bag, but they managed it. Snap open the 1 lb+ bag (cost, a damn reasonable $4.99), and you’ll find some frozen, breaded chicken, a bag of frozen veggies (bell peppers, onions, and water chestnuts and of course super hot peppers), two sacks of tangy sauce, and a baggy of halved peanuts. There are microwaveable instructions on the bag but disregard these – they’re only there to tempt the weak-willed.  Your choice should be skillet cooking, which could not be easy, quicker or more rewarding. I’m generally a klutz in the kitchen, but even I can brown chicken in a tablespoon of oil, add the vegetables until they soften, mix in sauce and garnish with peanuts. Nothing more than that, and you end up with a somewhat sweet, salty, savory dish of tender chicken, crunchy veggies and yielding peanuts, all held together by a brilliantly balanced sauce and a thread of fire.

The only complaint I can level against the Kung Pao is that it comes with too much sauce. Two packets is more than you need – but this is as easily solved as putting one packet aside before cooking. If only all of life was this easy.


The Breakdown

Would I Recommend It: I absolutely would.

Would I Buy It Again: I already have.

Final Synopsis: A turbulent history has culminated in this better-than-restaurant Kung Pao chicken.

Trader Joes Kung Pao Chicken - Nutrition Facts

Trader Joes Kung Pao Chicken – Nutrition Facts

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10 Comments on “Trader Ming’s (Trader Joe’s) Kung Pao Chicken”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Having seen countless reviews on the Mandarin Chicken, wanted to get a take on the Kung Pao. How refreshing to get a fascinating history lesson included in the review instead of the usual unfunny, overly personal anecdotes that are way too popular with food bloggers. Thanks, will definitely pick this up on my next trip to TJ’s.

  2. Kelli says:

    This Kung Pao Chicken is seriously addictive! It pairs well with the frozen Jasmine Rice. Love it!!!!

  3. Garth says:

    heh, I just made this for lunch and paired it with the Jasmine Rice mentioned above. I came here looking for the ingredient list because I couldn’t remember what all was in it. Personally I added some sliced bok choy – I think it needs some more veggies 🙂

  4. Alana Leger says:

    Do you think it would turn out less spicy if I pulled out the large hot peppers before cooking?

  5. Danielle Parker says:

    I actually toss out the frozen veggies that come with it. I use fresh broccoli, mushrooms, and green onions. To up the spiciness, I throw in a hefty dose of sriracha. Also, I use sesame oil to saute the chicken instead of vegetable oil. In my opinion, it makes a great frozen meal even better.

  6. Susan M says:

    Looking for decently healthy, reasonably priced, entrees that my son can quickly cook up on his own (he is a frozen pizza guy if left to his own defenses), I discovered this in the weekly flyer. I noticed the price was much better than some of the Pfchang and Bertolli all-in-one-bags and you get way more food. This was pretty good! A couple of recommendations – use ALL of the sauce. I used 1.5 pouches (there are 2 in the kit) thinking that looked like plenty and I am always looking for opportunities to cut down the salt. However, the sauce thickens up and REALLY thickens upon cooling. If you want to eat any leftovers you will appreciate the extra sauce. Also, cut up the chicken chunks into smaller pieces so they cook more uniformly. Some of them were quite big – about the size of a half-dollar. In real Kung-pao chicken, the chunks should be small. I agree with Danielle that it wouldn’t take much more to chop up a own fresh onion, green pepper, etc. and toss that in rather than the mushy veggie packet.

    • Mike says:

      Skip the P.F. Chang’s frozen Kung Pao, no peanuts, too spicy sauce that doesn’t taste anything like Kung Pao. It is seriously disappointing. I haven’t tried the Trader Joe’s version, but I will.

  7. Taylor says:

    This is an easy recipe to replicate.
    Dark meat chicken diced (browned)
    Red bell pepper diced
    1 Green bell pepper diced
    1 Onion diced
    2 cloves garlic
    1 zuchinni diced
    2-3 dried red chilli
    Saute all veggies, mix in with the browned chicken, add peanuts (optional), and then add
    Panda Express Mandarin Sauce…I used half a bottle.
    (Don’t use the kung paid sauce Panda Express makes, its too sour)

  8. KT says:

    I would not recommend this or buy it again. There were several chunks of pure fat in the bag i bought and some of the chicken pieces had a lot of yellow fat on them.

    Delicious sauce, but the pure fat was certainly just Not Worth spending money on much less eat!

  9. Jessica says:

    I’m looking to take this to work, if I prepare on the stove then reheat in micro next day is this gonna lose its flavor or quality?


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