How Bang Bang Chicken Went From Chinese Street Food To A Saucy Finger Food

Spicy food lovers may have a hard time resisting the urge to load up on bang bang chicken at their favorite American Chinese food restaurant. And no, this popular Chinese dish isn't called that because the flavor packs a sweat-inducing "bang" with each bite. The name actually comes from the traditional preparation method it requires, which can be traced back to China's Han Yang Ba district in the early 20th century.

In modern restaurants, you've likely tried the breaded version as a fried appetizer. However, long before it became Americanized and morphed into something akin to spicy popcorn chicken, it was a beloved street food staple in China. Truly authentic bang bang chicken is fully shredded and typically served cold. Using heavy tenderizing sticks, which is what the Chinese word "bàng" actually translates to, cooked chicken is hammered until the shredded texture is achieved just before being coated in sauce.

The dish's signature spicy kick comes from toasted peppercorns that are from the region where China's cold-served chicken dish first became famous — Sichuan. Blend them with black vinegar, soy sauce, sesame or chili oil, and a touch of sugar, and you've created bang bang chicken's iconic guaiwei sauce (meaning "strange flavor"). Lay it all on a bed of julienned cucumbers, and you're ready to dig in. The real question is, how did western bang bang chicken turn out so vastly different than the real thing?

America has conflated bang bang chicken with bang bang shrimp

Flashback to 2007 at one of New York's biggest food festivals, Taste of Syracuse, when a chef duo from Florida's BoneFish Grill introduced the world to their own bang bang shrimp. According to the event director, "It was so popular, the lines began blocking people from going east to west along Water Street," (via Their traffic-congesting shrimp features a creamy sauce made from mayo, sriracha, vinegar, and sweet chili sauce, and other restaurants soon began recreating versions of their bang bang shrimp. 

Eventually, the lines became inevitably blurred between the shrimp's sauce and Sichuan's original street food concept, evidenced by all the online recipes that include similar ingredients to BoneFish Grill's. While both are tasty in their own right, there's only one way to enjoy traditional bang bang chicken, and you can be sure that mayonnaise isn't part of the equation. 

According to Chinese legend, an experimental chef in the region of Ya'an came up with the idea to shred chicken in order to serve more people, as chickens were a luxury during this time. Knives couldn't quite get the job done evenly, so he resorted to the stick-banging method, and voilà. Chicken for all. Whether China's bang bang chicken recipe is a couple of thousand years old or as new as the 20th century, it's a real shame that it got so mixed up with a completely different dish in the United States.