Full of sweet, salty, spicy, sour, and savory flavor, this Vegan Kung Pao Chicken is completely amazing and easy to make. This Kung Pao is better than takeout, and it’s better for you but it does NOT compromise on incredible flavor.
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Hey Internet, I was craving takeout again, so I decided to add to my arsenal of veganized Chinese takeout-inspired food and made this amazing vegan kung pao.
I want to start again with the disclaimer that this is not authentic Chinese cooking--most Western Chinese takeout isn’t, because Americans seem to really like these dishes they can order from a multitude of local Chinese restaurants. I should know; I’m one of them!
BUT WAIT! Kung Pao, unlike many Western takeout dishes, is actually rooted in authentic Chinese cuisine! Originally created in the Sichuan province in Southwestern China, Kung Pao is normally made with animal meat (usually chicken), Sichuan peppercorns, and spicy chilies.
Classic Kung Pao also contains peanuts, which balance the spiciness out and make this so sweet, sour, spicy, salty, crunchy, and amazing. I give some substitutes for peanuts below, though, since I know many people are allergic.
But back to how my dish is not authentic (lol), it’s not even authentic takeout, first of all because it’s more like take-in… or make-in, rather. *Mr. Zardyplants rolls his eyes as he sits on the other side of the office.*
And second of all, it’s much healthier--and not meat--so there’s that.
BUT, and I’m probably biased, but this is still delicious and bonus that it’s easy and healthy. And of course, it’s vegan and oil-free. And it can be gluten-free, if that matters to you; just buy gluten-free tamari instead of soy sauce!
Anyway, my vegan kung pao chicken -- or we can call it kung pao tofu, but I wanted to keep it open so you could use other meat substitutes… more on that later -- is totally tasty.
The vegan kung pao sauce, oh my gosh this sauce, is simply addictive. It’s also fairly customizable. The only thing I’d change is if I could have found those Sichuan peppercorns… mmmmph.
Sichuan peppercorns actually used to be impossible to find because of an import ban. Now you can usually find them in Asian markets, but I have been unable to locate mine locally. I keep meaning to buy some online, but it keeps getting lost in my internal to-do list. Time to put it on my external one!
If you can’t find any, or you just want to use black pepper, that’s totally fine too.
Since we kind of already segued into discussing ingredients, let’s hop to the next section to do that.
What You’ll Need
So, I use tofu in this vegan kung pao, so yes, technically it’s vegan kung pao tofu, but I will give you some fun substitutes for that in the Substitutions section below.
But if you’re cool with tofu, let’s talk about that for a second.
Extra firm would work fine for this, as would regular pressed firm tofu.
But let me blow your mind here. Have you ever dried frozen and thawed tofu before? Freezing actually changes the chemical structure of the tofu (something about ice crystals forming then melting when you thaw it) and it makes the texture more tough and chewy--a lot more like chicken.
I ripped off pieces of my frozen and thawed tofu -- after I pressed it for about 15 minutes in my EZ tofu press -- and they were SO GOOD in this dish.
You gotta try it. It only needs to be frozen overnight and then you can thaw it in the morning on your counter and eat it that night for dinner.
Pressing your tofu is necessary* for this dish, otherwise it will be wet and mushy, and won’t absorb any of that saucy goodness.
*Unless you purchased extra or super firm tofu, then just cube that bad boy up and throw it in the marinade.
Which, let’s talk about that marinade for a sec. It’s an optional step, but I find it adds a depth of flavor. I recommend soy sauce, non-alcoholic mirin (chinese cooking wine, sherry will also work), and a little water. Pour it over your freshly pressed tofu and it will soak it up like a sponge in just 10 minutes.
Oh and speaking of it now while I remember, this recipe isn’t nut-free because *usually* kung pao has peanuts in it (and also hoisin, which sometimes contains peanut), but you can omit them AND the hoisin if you can’t have peanuts.
If you can have nuts, just not peanuts, you could try cashews, almonds, or just use sesame seeds!
OK NOW, onto the vegetables. I used red and green pepper--not sure why, maybe just the color. Use whatcha have and whatcha like!
I also used green onions, ginger, and garlic because they provide tons of flavor. If you don’t want to do all that mincing, you can use a little less of their powdered versions in your sauce.
Speaking of the sauce, I’m giving that baby its own section.
The Vegan Kung Pao Sauce
I would marry this sauce if I wasn’t already married to my husband.
I could write ballads and soliloquies about this sauce.
What, don’t give me that look. Didn’t you know I was an English major? Actually, I got a Master’s in English, so there *sticks out tongue*. Yes, yes I am thirty.
So you get it, the sauce is good.
It’s fully customizable, so this recipe I’m going to give you below is my personal fave, and hubby liked it too, seeing as we both licked our bowls and practically skipped back to the kitchen for seconds.
So it starts with reduced sodium soy sauce or gluten-free tamari. I prefer the reduced sodium version because the regular is way too salty for me and you can only use a tiny bit before it overpowers the dish in my opinion. But use whatcha like.
Next, and this is optional, hoisin. I was able to find an oil-free hoisin (from kikkoman) from my local supermarket and it adds so much salty sweetness, but I’ll give some substitutes below.
A dash of balsamic vinegar is absolutely delightful in this but any vinegar will work.
Red pepper flakes -- I used these for heat since I couldn’t find the sichuan (or szechuan) peppercorns I mentioned earlier, but if you have those then by all means use them.
And if you don’t like spicy food, then just leave ‘em out entirely.
Finally, a little cornstarch or arrowroot powder will thicken it up nicely.
You can experiment with adding a little peanut butter or sugar if you want to, but I found that the blend I just described to you was *chef’s kiss* beautiful.
What Substitutions Can I Make?
If you think you don’t like tofu, I urge you to try the frozen and thaw method I talked about above. Simply freeze it overnight, thaw it completely, and press it for 15 minutes in a cheap tofu press or even cheaper between two cutting boards or plates and a heavy weight on top.
However, if you can’t have soy, try making your vegan kung pao with one of these options:
Make my seitan chicken nuggets and use them straight in the sauce (cut them in half for bite-size), use store-bought seitan, or just use chickpeas instead. Still plenty of protein without getting too fancy.
If you can’t have soy sauce because you’re gluten-free, you can just purchase gluten-free tamari (note that not all tamari is gluten-free, but there are many readily available brands of gluten-free tamari (my favorites are San-J and Kikkoman).
Vegan Kung Pao is GREAT with peanuts, as they are a classic part of this dish, but there other options if you can’t have peanuts. As mentioned above, you could try cashews, almonds, or sesame seeds instead of the peanuts, or you can just leave them out entirely. The dish won’t suffer--it will still be absolutely delicious.
Hoisin is a thick, darkly colored, sweet and salty sauce popular in Chinese cooking. You can usually find it in the Asian or International section of your local supermarket (I’ve even seen it at Target and Walmart). It does usually contain soy, but I have seen nut and gluten-free varieties--just read the ingredients if you have those restrictions.
If you don’t want to use hoisin, I’d substitute it with a little more soy sauce and a bit of sweetener like coconut sugar or regular sugar. You could also add a little fennel and some more garlic to mimic those flavors.
This vinegar adds a sweet, smoky, tangy quality to your sauce that just deepens the flavor, but it doesn’t really taste like balsamic. I HATE balsamic vinegar, but I love this sauce so that should tell you something.
However any vinegar will work, though I’d recommend maybe rice vinegar or apple cider vinegar instead.
Red Pepper Flakes or Sichuan Peppercorns
The Sichuan peppercorns would be much more authentic than the red pepper flakes I used, but in these times you kind of gotta use what you have. And try not spill all the red pepper flakes on the floor like I did. Sorry, Mr. Zardyplants.
You can also substitute either of these with black pepper, or you can just leave it out entirely if you’re not into spicy food.
Tips for Amazing Vegan Kung Pao Chicken
First, a few tofu tips, which don’t apply if you’re subbing seitan or chickpeas:
- I super duper recommend using the freeze and thaw method with regular firm tofu. You CAN USE extra firm tofu and it will be good, but this freeze and thaw has blown my mind. Actually freezing and thawing it twice will make it even more chewy, but I can’t ever keep track because I always have at least 8 things of tofu in my house.
- If not using extra or super firm, you need to press your tofu for at least 15 minutes. That’s all I bothered with, but I could have done it more and gotten actually better results.
- When you press your tofu, do it over the sink so the liquid can drip out instead of pooling at the bottom and reabsorbing. I love this inexpensive EZ Tofu Press, but you can use a couple of cutting boards or plates and a heavy weight, though you might experience that reabsorption issue.
- The marination is not a required step. I think it adds an extra bit of flavor but like I said, totally optional.
Ok those were my tofu tips. Onto the rest:
- Cut up your veggies while your tofu is pressing or marinating, and measure out all the ingredients for the sauce. It will make everything go smoother when you start cooking.
- Next, start your garlic and ginger sauteing in a nonstick pan. You can use oil if you want, or just use a little water. Saute them for a minute over medium high heat until they become fragrant. Now, here’s where you can kind of customize. Do you like your veggies a little crunchy still or do you want them totally soft? If the former, wait to add them till later, like a few minutes before you add the tofu. If you want them super soft, add them now and saute them for 3 minutes before the next step.
- Add the peanuts (or almonds/cashews if using nuts) now and saute them with the garlic and ginger for about 3 minutes. If not using any nuts, just add the peppers now and saute for a few minutes.
- Throw all your vegan kung pao sauce ingredients in the pot now. Make sure to mix the water with the cornstarch or arrowroot powder BEFORE throwing it in, to minimize lumps. Stir the sauce and heat it till you start to see little bubbles, then turn the heat down to medium until the sauce thickens to a more syrupy consistency.
- Now add the tofu and stir gently. You can use your utensil to break it up a little if you want to. Let it heat, adjust the flavors if you need to.
- When it’s done serve it up with rice or whatever else you like. Sprinkle it with more green onion, chili flakes, and crushed peanuts, if you want.
Other Chinese Takeout Inspired Recipes
I love vegan Chinese takeout inspired food. While this food is definitely not authentic Chinese food, more like American Chinese restaurant food, many people including myself grew up loving some of these dishes and I decided it was definitely worthwhile to veganize and share my favorites.
If you like this vegan kung pao, you’ll probably like my:
- Vegan Orange Chicken
- Vegan Beef and Broccoli
- Vegan Teriyaki Chicken with optional Brussels sprouts
- Vegan Veggie Lo Mein (only takes 15 minutes!)
- Vegan Teriyaki Cauliflower Wings (more like Chinese takeout and American fusion, oops)
As always, I hope you love this recipe--I know I do, and Mr. Zardyplants does too.
This Vegan Kung Pao Chicken is:
- Spicy -- easy to make mild, though
- Surprisingly healthy
- Perfect for meal prep
- And oh so delicious!
Let me know in the comments below if you make this recipe or tag me @Zardyplants on Instagram so I can see your beautiful recreations! If you tag me on IG, I will share your post in my stories :)
Also, one quick request: if you love how this recipe looks or tastes, please leave me a 5-star rating and a nice comment–ratings help more people find my recipes which helps me keep providing them! Thank you!