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Twice-fry chicken for sweet-spicy splurge

At its most wholesome, wok cooking promotes using less fat and consuming more vegetables.

Or at least that’s the perception of “stir-fry” as a culinary genre. I recall a family friend who bestowed my wok as a bridal gift, opining that it’s “such healthy food.”

The majority of foods prepared in woks nationwide, however, don’t fit too many mainstream definitions of “healthy.” Most restaurant dishes in this vein contain not only plenty of fat and sodium but also sugar, which can tame the level of spice.

This recipe, courtesy of Tribune News Service, relies not only on granulated sugar but also chopped sweet pickles to create a sauce that approximates Chinese restaurant fare. If you’re going to splurge, after all, better make it tasty.

Twice-frying is another technique that yields a crispy coating that stays intact when tossed with the sauce. For years, I couldn’t understand why my breading turned gluey the minute it interacted with cornstarch-thickened sauce. Frying battered meat not once — but two times — is the solution, as anyone who’s ever made really good chicken wings knows.

For more classics of Asian cuisine ideal for breaking out your wok, see my latest food section column.

Tribune News Service photo

Chengdu Chicken

For chicken:

1 pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 1-inch cubes

1 large eggs

1/4 cup cornstarch

1/2 teaspoon salt

Vegetable oil, for frying

For sauce:

1/4 cup minced sweet American pickles

3 tablespoons distilled white vinegar

3 tablespoons sugar

2 tablespoons soy sauce

2 tablespoons rice wine or dry sherry

1 tablespoon fish sauce

2 teaspoons hot bean paste

1 teaspoon cornstarch

1 scallion, white and green parts, trimmed and minced

2 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced 1/8 inch thick

1 small hot chile pepper, such as Thai or cayenne, stemmed, seeded and minced

6 cilantro sprigs, for garnish

In a medium bowl, mix the chicken, egg, cornstarch, salt and 1 tablespoon water. Cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Heat a large wok over high heat. Add enough oil to come about 1 1/2 inches up wok’s sides; heat it to 375 F.

In 2 batches, add chicken pieces to oil, a few pieces at a time, and stir gently, keeping pieces separate and cooking until coating looks set but not browned, for about 45 seconds. Using a wide wire-mesh skimmer, transfer chicken to a colander to drain. Remove any bits of fried chicken or batter from oil.

Return chicken to wok and deep-fry again until it is golden brown and crispy, for about 2 minutes. Discard all but 2 tablespoons oil from wok.

To begin sauce, in a small bowl, mix the pickles, vinegar, sugar, soy sauce wine, fish sauce and hot bean paste. Dissolve the cornstarch in 1 tablespoon cold water in another small bowl. Set bowls aside.

Return wok with oil to high heat. Add the scallion, garlic and chile, and stir-fry until scallion wilts, for about 15 seconds. Return chicken to wok and add pickle mixture. Stir-fry for 20 seconds. Add cornstarch mixture and stir-fry until sauce thickens, for about 10 seconds.

Garnish chicken with cilantro and serve immediately.

Makes 3 to 4 main dish servings (with rice) or 4 to 6 servings as part of a multicourse meal.

— Recipe from “The Shun Lee Cookbook” by Michael Tong.