This kung pao paneer is a saucy, spicy, cheesy dish, perfect for serving with a fluffy bed of rice!
Paneer is a soft Indian cheese that resists melting. It’s great in anything saucy, since you get to bite into each chunk!
I’d recommend looking for paneer at Indian or other South Asian grocery stores. Not to dash your hopes, but I’ve had only very limited success with finding it at East Asian, Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern grocery stores.
Thickening sauces and soups with a cornstarch slurry is a classic Chinese technique. Here, it works to give the sauce some body quickly (without having to wait for the sauce to reduce), which helps it coat and stick to the paneer and bell peppers.
Using a slurry (cornstarch and water) in the sauce is key. If you ignore the water and mix the cornstarch straight into the sauce, it can get clumpy. No one wants a lumpy sauce, especially if you’re the unlucky person who gets a mouthful of powdery cornstarch.
How to Make
The majority of this recipe is spent prepping the seasonings and sauce, so let’s get into it.
Start by sauteeing the aromatics (dried chili, ginger, garlic and onion). If you want to use white pepper and/or Sichuan peppercorns, this is the chance to add them to let them get a lil toasty.
Once those ingredients are fragrant, add the soy sauces, cooking wine and vinegar. Give that a stir before adding the bell pepper and paneer.
After the bell pepper is softened to your preferred texture and the paneer is warmed through, mix together the cornstarch and water until completely combined.
Add the cornstarch/water slurry into the pan, and let cook until the sauce is thickened.
Serve hot with rice and top with roasted peanuts!
This dish is actually best made ahead of time. When the sauce has time to sit, the flavors meld and deepen more, so it’s great as leftovers.
Quick note for my fellow spice wimps: the sauce can end up being spicier since the chilis have more opportunities to give off their heat. You can decrease the amount of chilis you use or remove them before storing any leftovers.
Substitutions and Variations
Paneer was surprisingly hard for me to find, especially since I was spoiled by the number of Indian grocery stores in my hometown. If you also run into this issue, you can sub in another kind of cheese, so long as it doesn’t melt easily!
Something like halloumi, which keeps its shape when you pan-fry it, is a good option.
You can also use tofu, seitan, or some other form of protein if you can’t find any cheese that is sturdy enough to hold firm when you’re warming it.
I like the slight crunch that bell peppers add to this dish, as well as how quickly they cook. Any other vegetable works too, though I’d suggest:
- Something that is already cooked or cooks quickly. Baby corn, thinly sliced celery, zucchini, etc.
- Something soft to soak up the sauce. Potatoes (this idea is giving me dry pot vibes yum), eggplant, leafy greens (though these might soak up too much of the sauce and get salty), etc.
If the vegetable takes a little longer to cook, make sure you do so before you add it to the sauce (raw potatoes are not going to soften up enough in the sauce).
Some people love a ton of sauce to have plenty to soak into their rice. If that’s you, feel free to make a larger batch of sauce for the same amount of paneer I call for here!
Historically, kung pao dishes use Chinese rice wine and Chinese black vinegar. I don’t think these are necessary though.
I’ve successfully subbed in soju and sake (plain, not sweetened or flavored please!) for the cooking wine, as well as rice wine vinegar and white vinegar for the black vinegar.
Also, the Sichuan peppercorn and white pepper are optional. They can be fun to use, especially if they’re not typical go to’s in your spice cabinet.
Both of these spices can be strong, so try to add a little at a time and taste the sauce after adding everything in before adding more.
As for the dark soy sauce – I like the color and richness that the dark soy adds, but you can easily use all normal soy sauce instead.
My spice tolerance is almost non-existent, which definitely impacts the way I cook. All that to say that recipe only has a gentle heat as written.
Want to make this meal spicier? You can increase the amount of dried chilis, or add some fresh chilis (seeds optional!), hot sauce, and/or red pepper flakes in the sauce.
I love the flavor of Chinese chili garlic sauce, but as long as the hot sauce goes with an Asian flavor profile (I’m thinking sambal and chili crisp), you should be good to go. This isn’t really the time for something tangy.
The peanuts add a nice crunch to an otherwise fairly soft and saucy dish. If peanuts aren’t an option for you, feel free to substitute for another toasted nut or seed!
- 2 tablespoons oil
- 5 halved dried chilis
- 1 teaspoon minced sliced ginger
- 1 clove garlic minced
- 1 green onion chopped
- ¼ teaspoon ground white pepper optional
- ¼ teaspoon ground Sichuan peppercorn optional
- ½ teaspoon dark soy sauce
- ½ teaspoon light soy sauce
- ½ teaspoon cooking wine or mirin
- ½ teaspoon vinegar ideally black vinegar but rice wine vinegar works too
- ¼ teaspoon granulated sugar
- 6 ounces paneer cubed
- ½ bell pepper chopped
- 1 teaspoon cornstarch
- ¼ cup water
- ¼ cup roasted peanuts chopped
In a medium pan set over medium-high heat, heat the oil. Once the oil is hot, add the aromatics (chilis, ginger, garlic and green onion). Add the white pepper and/or Sichuan peppercorn if using.
Saute the aromatics until fragrant, then add the soy sauces, wine, vinegar, sugar, paneer and bell pepper. Cook until the bell peppers are slightly softened.
Combine the cornstarch and water in a small bowl until completely combined, then add to the pan. Stir and cook until the sauce is thickened and the paneer.
Top with the peanuts and serve hot with rice!
You can substitute another kind of vegetable for the bell peppers; if not quick cooking, pre-cook before adding to the sauce.
If you can’t find paneer, you can use another non-melting cheese (ie halloumi) or tofu.
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