A few weeks back, I was ordering lunch at a seafood joint in Alexandria when I spied a peculiarly named appetizer, “bang bang” shrimp. As a student of Chinese cooking, I recognized the name, so I gave it a try. What appeared several minutes later were deep-fried prawns tossed in a creamy mixture of garlic, ginger, ground chiles and mayonnaise. Sure, the name of this increasingly popular dish evokes an exotic ode to explosive Asian heat, but no matter how delicious the snack may be, Chinese cooks would be confounded. Deep-fried? Mayonnaise? Spicy? Heck, in China, despite its fiery name, “bang bang” doesn’t even refer to flavor!
Sometimes a Chinese dish is named for its evocative appearance (“lion’s head” meatballs), at times for stunning folklore (“barbarian head” buns), and in a few brilliant examples, for the sound made when the food is being prepared. Bang bang chicken’s name derives from the age-old noise of a baton smacking a whole cooked bird, breaking it into serving portions, where a kitchen cleaver just wouldn’t cut it (evenly). Chicken busted up in such a fashion is indeed bang bang, with or without a dressing. Over the centuries, however, the legendary name has come to mean the fully dressed masterpiece with a signature sauce.
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.
A decade later, while backpacking around Sichuan Province, I found my way to Dave’s Oasis, a foreigner’s refuge in the heart of the capital, Chengdu. The owner, Dave Fan, was a wide-ranging resource for the lost. If you needed an entry permit for Tibet, tips on navigating the pre-smartphone urban jungle or just an ice-cold Snow beer, Fan was your guy and his Oasis was your oasis. On an average day, well before fusion was a thing, Fan would be whipping up mapo tofu pizza, cheeseburger fried rice or my favorite, grilled bang bang chicken.
Fan was born and raised in Chengdu, but grilling the meat could be seen as heretical in Chinese gastronomy, where preserving the character of an individual ingredient is sacrosanct and poaching or steaming chicken is the ultimate in preservation. Though examples abound of grilled snacks in the Chinese street food playbook, masking the flavor of expertly charred meat with anything more than a dry dusting of spice, or maybe chile oil, is well outside of the norm. And, in the case of Fan’s bang bang chicken, genius. As Fan said, “Every cuisine has its strengths. We can learn a lot by teaming them up!”
I’m pretty sure Fan was just experimenting at the grill that day, but it left an indelible mark on my mind and my palate. 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. And frankly, the origin tale offers a great story the next time you have folks over for a backyard shindig.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Adapted from “Chinese Street Food: Small Bites, Classic Recipes and Harrowing Tales From Across the Middle Kingdom,” by Howie Southworth and Greg Matza (Skyhorse Publishing, 2018).
Tested by Andy Sikkenga; email questions to email@example.com.
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The nutritional analysis is 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.