Kung Pao Sweet Potatoes to Usher In the Lunar New Year

Sweet potatoes get swapped in for chicken in this clever take on Kung Pao.
Sweet potatoes get swapped in for chicken in this clever take on Kung Pao.

Start the Year of the Dragon off with a bang with something fiery and inspired.

“Kung Pao Sweet Potatoes” certainly isn’t traditional fare for the Lunar New Year, which starts on Saturday. But the dish certainly makes for an exciting and enticing new addition to the celebratory feast. Plus, it’s perfect for vegetarians, vegans, and anyone who enjoys twists on the classics.

This fun recipe is from “Veg-Table” (Chronicle Books, 2023), of which I received a review copy. It’s the newest cookbook by Los Angeles-based Nik Sharma, a former molecular biologist turned James Beard Award-winning, best-selling cookbook author, photographer, and recipe developer.

He brings his scientific background, precision for recipes, and love of big, bold flavors to bear on this collection of vegetable-focused recipes. It’s not a strictly vegetarian cookbook, but even when animal proteins are included, they play a more supporting rather than starring role.

The cookbook features more than 50 types of vegetables with recipes organized by plant family, including such temptations as “Kimchi Creamed Corn,” “Crispy Salmon with Green Curry Spinach,” “Cauliflower Bolognese,” and “Carrot, Apple, and Harissa Soup.”

If you’re already a fan of Kung Pao chicken, then this sweet potato version is sure to seduce you. It has the numbing quality of Sichuan pepper and the heat of dried chillies that plays so nicely against the sweetness of the starchy tubers.

Arbol chillies.
Arbol chillies.

The diced sweet potatoes get sauced with a mixture of Shaoxing wine, soy sauce, sesame oil, black vinegar, sugar, and those prickly ground Sichuan peppercorns, and stir-fried with a dozen dried chilli de arbol, garlic, ginger, scallions, and roasted peanuts.

You get the delightful softness of the potatoes against the crunch of peanuts, along with a whole lot of sweet, spicy, and savory deliciousness.

Sweet and spicy, and with numbing Sichuan peppercorns.
Sweet and spicy, and with numbing Sichuan peppercorns.

With plain steamed rice, it’s a total comfort take on supper. Or make it part of a family-style feast alongside dishes of stir-fried green veggies and a whole fish or chicken.

The recipes in this book are not written in the usual format with a separate column of ingredients with their amounts, followed by directions on what to do with them. Instead, the ingredients and directions are written together within the recipe. Whether you love this or hate this depends on your personal preference. I’ve kept the format below to keep to the spirit of the book.

Serve with rice for a total comfort meal.
Serve with rice for a total comfort meal.

Kung Pao Sweet Potatoes

(Makes 4 servings)

In a wok or large skillet over high heat, warm 2 tablespoons neutral oil with a high smoke point such as grapeseed. When the oil begins to shimmer, add 1 1/2 pounds orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, peeled and diced into 1/4-inch cubes, and stir-fry until golden brown and tender, 7 to 9 minutes. Lower the heat if they start to turn too dark. Season with fine sea salt and 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper. Transfer the sweet potatoes with a slotted spoon to a large plate or bowl.

In a small bowl, whisk together 1/4 cup Shaoxing wine or dry sherry, 1 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce, 2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil, 1 teaspoon Chinese black vinegar, 1 teaspoon cornstarch, 1 teaspoon ground Sichuan peppercorns, and 1/4 teaspoon sugar to form a smooth sauce.

Wipe out the wok or skillet and heat 2 tablespoons neutral oil with a high smoke point such as grapeseed over high heat. When the oil begins to shimmer, add 10 to 12 whole dried red chillies such as chilli de arbol, stems and seeds removed and discarded, cut into 1/2-inch pieces, and stir-fry for 15 to 30 seconds, until fragrant and the chillies turn bright red and start to expand. Add 2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced, and 2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and cut lengthwise into thin slices, and stir-fry for 30 seconds, until fragrant.

Return the sweet potatoes to the wok. Drizzle the sauce over sweet potatoes and stir-fry until it thickens and the sweet potatoes are completely coated, 30 seconds. Add 1/2 cup roasted unsalted whole peanuts and 4 scallions, both white and green parts, cut into 1/2-inch long pieces, and stir for 1 minute. Remove from the heat, taste, and season with fine sea salt. Transfer to a serving bowl and serve immediately. Leftovers can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.

From “Veg-Table” by Nik Sharma

Plus: Kung Pao Cauliflower

More Nik Sharma Recipes to Enjoy: Beef Chilli Fry with Pancetta

And: Roast Leg of Lamb

And: New Potatoes with Mustard Oil Herb Salsa

Plus More Lunar New Year Treats: Mama Chang’s Hot & Sour Soup

And: Jamie Oliver’s Quick Portuguese Custard Tarts

And: Roast Chicken with Ginger and Soy-Whiskey Glaze

And: Almond “Tofu” with Fruit Cocktail

And: Almond Cookies

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