Here’s How Fly by Jing’s Founder Makes Her Popcorn Chicken

Jing Gao shares a recipe from "The Book of Sichuan Chili Crisp"

Jing Gao’s popcorn chicken.
Popcorn chicken is a party favorite and is always fast to vanish.

A native of the capital city of southwestern China’s Sichuan province, Jing Gao’s earliest food memories involve eating dumplings, noodles and other tasty morsels at the hole-in-the-wall stalls that are a staple of Chengdu’s street food scene. Affectionately known as “fly restaurants” for their ability to attract diners on a budget like flies (and sometimes have a few buzzing around), these family-run eateries made a lasting impression on Gao’s palate and she fondly remembers the spicy chili oil they typically had on hand to heat things up.

So when Gao decided she wanted to bring a version of Sichuan chili crisp to market in the U.S. five years ago, after noticing it was widely unavailable outside of specialty stores, coming up with a name for the spicy condiment was simple: Fly By Jing.

Gao has brought Fly By Jing to masses after running the most successful Kickstarter campaign of any food brand to date. Now offering heat-packing pantry items including tingly salt, hot sauce and a chili crisp vinaigrette, Fly By Jing has grown by leaps and bounds since launching in 2018. Busy building her brand, Gao nonetheless found time to remember and record the recipes from her supper club and launch her debut cookbook, The Book of Sichuan Chili Crisp: Spicy Recipes and Stories from Fly By Jing’s Kitchen.

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Featuring 85 recipes for everything from Kung Pao meatballs to Mapo Ragù to spicy cocktails, the cookbook highlights “Sichuan soul food,” according to Gao. “I trained under a Sichuan chef and learned all about the techniques and the ingredients of the region, but I wanted to express something unique to my experience,” she says. “It’s very much Sichuan flavors through my lens. The book is a very personal story of my journey of building Fly By Jing and bringing the flavors of my hometown to the world. It features, obviously, a lot of chili crisp, which is a spicy, savory, delicious and complex condiment that goes on everything.”

By showcasing her signature sauce via the recipes in the book, Gao says she’s hoping to break down the barriers between people and broaden their understanding of what Sichuan food is, and to turn chili crisp into a universally used condiment that is not just automatically relegated to the ethnic foods aisle.

“It’s the most popular form of hot sauce in the most populous country in the world. In China, every family has their own way of making it,” Gao says. “Our chili crisp uses 18 ingredients that are sourced from my hometown. In a way, it’s more traditional or authentic than anything you could find in the U.S. The whole spirit of this condiment is that it is just really accessible. When we launched, we made it a point to show people you can put this on just about anything, not just Chinese food. You don’t have to cook Sichuan to make it fit into your lifestyle.”

An offering from the cookbook that’s relatively easy to fit into your lifestyle given the size of the portions is Gao’s Sichuan popcorn chicken. A hybrid dish that mashes up Taiwanese popcorn chicken and Sichuan’s La Za chicken, Gao’s creation calls for a number of interesting ingredients including five-spice powder, tapioca starch and Mala spice mix, a versatile condiment that can be used as a marinade, seasoning or dry rub. Golden and crispy and garnished with bay leaves, Gao’s popcorn chicken “is a party favorite” and “always quick to disappear,” especially when its topped up with chili crisp for some extra kick.

“I love all forms of fried chicken. I can’t pick a favorite because they’re all so good, but I think the texture is really interesting here because of the tapioca starch batter,” Gao says. “The chicken is really crunchy, but kind of chewy almost. Applying the Mala spice mix really makes it pop and gives it that Sichuan flavor that is spicy and tingly at the same time.”

Here’s how to make it.

Jing Gao's Sichuan Popcorn Chicken

Prep Time: Varies, marinating required

Servings: 6 servings

  • For the Mala Spice Mix
  • 1⁄3 cup dried erjingtiao chili, cut into segments
  • 2 tbsp. cumin seeds 1
  • 1⁄2 tsp. fennel seeds
  • 2 pieces star anise
  • 2 pieces cardamom
  • 1 tsp. cloves
  • 3 tbsp. granulated sugar
  • 1 tbsp. kosher salt
  • For the Chicken
  • 2 lb. boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 3 tbsp. soy sauce
  • 2 tbsp. minced garlic
  • 2 tsp. five-spice powder
  • 2 tsp. granulated sugar
  • 2 tsp. kosher salt
  • 2 cups tapioca starch
  • 2 eggs
  • Neutral oil for frying
  • 1 tbsp Mala Spice Mix
  • 1 cup Thai basil leaves, lightly packed
  • For the Mala Spice Mix
    1. In a wok or frying pan over medium-low heat, toast the chili, cumin, fennel, star anise, cardamom and cloves until fragrant. About 3 to 4 minutes.

    2. Transfer the mixture to a small bowl and let cool.

    3. Add the sugar and salt to the toasted mixture and mix well. Using a mortar and pestle or a spice grinder, grind the entire mixture until it reaches a fine powder consistency. Use immediately or store in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks.

  • For the Chicken
    1. In a large bowl, combine the chicken with the soy sauce, garlic, five-spice powder, sugar, and salt. Set aside to marinate for at least 30 minutes or overnight in the refrigerator.

    2. Have on hand two shallow bowls. In the first bowl, add the tapioca starch. In the second bowl, whisk the eggs. Working with one piece of chicken at a time, dip each piece in the beaten eggs, then in the tapioca starch.

    3. Line a plate with paper towels.

    4. Add 3 inches of oil in a wok over high heat and heat to about 350 degrees on an instant-read thermometer.

    5. Working in batches, add the battered chicken pieces and fry until golden and crispy, 8 to 9 minutes. Transfer the chicken to the prepared plate and sprinkle evenly with the spice mix.

    6. Quickly fry the basil leaves in the wok until crispy and translucent, about 30 seconds or so, and toss together with the fried chicken. Serve hot.


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