I’ve been daydreaming about Springfield Cashew Chicken since last November, when I first read about the Missourian delicacy right here on The Takeout. I highly recommend you read Jonathan Bender’s piece on the dish’s origins, because it’s much more fun to eat food with an interesting backstory and I am not going to recap it for you. If you’d like to learn more about what we’re making today, go read that article, then come back.
Welcome back! So here’s the thing: Even though I learned a lot from Jonathan’s article, I’ve never been to Springfield, Missouri, nor have I tasted its cashew chicken, which Jonathan describes as a “Cantonese-inspired take on fried chicken and gravy.” I assumed that in order to perfectly replicate David Leong’s famous dish, I’d have to do some some digging through local newspaper archives, regional blogs, and digitized community cookbooks to build a composite recipe that would (hopefully) taste just like the real thing. Instead, after ten seconds of Googling, I found the original recipe, which Leong’s son, Wing Yee Leong, shared with 417 Magazine. I could have simply made some tiny alterations and published Leong’s recipe here, but I didn’t. If you’d like to check out the OG recipe, give 417 Magazine a click, then come back.
Welcome back again! Now that we are all well versed on Springfield Cashew Chicken, I present to you two cashew chickens. Behold:
The chicken on the white plate is David Leong’s recipe, which, as expected, was absolutely freaking phenomenal. If you choose to make that recipe, here are my notes: cut down the measurements for the flour mixture, the milk batter, and the sauce by two-thirds, because they seem to be restaurant-sized measurements.
The chicken on the black plate is a slightly altered version, which I made not because I think I could do it better, but because I wanted to create an homage to this Midwest delicacy that The Takeout could call its own. For the breading, I swapped out all-purpose flour for finely milled Wondra instant flour, which gives the chicken a thinner, crispy coating. Again, not better than the original, just different, so you can use all-purpose if you like. The original Springfield Cashew Chicken has no vegetables—as former Riverfront Times reporter and current Takeout associate editor Aimee Levitt once said, “it’s classic Midwest, so they skip the veggies.” It does, however, have a generous scallion garnish, so I decided to serve my chicken on a bed of Momofuku-esque scallion-ginger sauce, punched up with some of the same ingredients used in the brown sauce. While it’s not “authentic,” I think this is a fabulous addition that even Springfield Cashew Chicken purists should try at least once. Finally, whereas the original recipe calls for whole cashews, I decided to mince mine and toast them in a bit of oil that I poured off the top of a jar of chili crisp. The best move here would be to use both types of cashews, because more cashews = more fun. That’s a fact that we can all agree on, no matter how we like our chicken.
Serves 4 (or 2, if you eat Chinese food the way I do)
For the scallion sauce
- 1 bunch scallions
- 3 Tbsp. freshly grated ginger
- 1 Tbsp. sesame oil
- 1 tsp. soy sauce
- 1 tsp. oyster sauce
- 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
- 3 Tbsp. canola or vegetable oil
For the chicken pieces
- 1½-2 lbs. boneless skinless chicken breasts
- 1½ cups Wondra instant flour
- 1 tsp. kosher salt
- ½ tsp. finely ground pepper
- ½ tsp. garlic powder
- 1½ cups milk
- 2 eggs
- Oil, for frying
For the brown sauce
- 2 cups chicken broth
- 1 tsp. brown sugar
- 1/4 cup soy sauce
- 1/4 cup oyster sauce
- 1 Tbsp. freshly grated ginger
- 2 tsp. garlic powder
- 1 tsp. sesame oil
- 1/4 cup water
- 2 Tbsp. cornstarch
For the cashews
- 2 Tbsp. chili oil
- 1/3 cup chopped cashews
Thinly slice the scallions (both the white and green parts) on a bias. Add to a small bowl with the remaining ingredients, toss well, and set aside while you make everything else. (The sauce needs to hang out for at least 30 minutes, if not longer, to develop its flavor, which is why it’s best to do this part first.)
Set up a breading station with two bowls and a sheet pan. In one bowl, mix together the flour, salt, pepper, and garlic powder. In the second bowl, whisk the eggs very well until they’re completely smooth, then whisk in the milk.
Cube the chicken into 2" pieces. Working a few pieces at a time, coat the chicken in the flour mixture, dip in the milk mixture to coat, then dredge once again in the flour mixture and put on the sheet tray. Let the chicken rest while the oil heats up.
Pour oil to a 5" depth in a heavy-bottomed saucepan; clip on a candy/frying thermometer. Turn the heat to high; the oil is ready when the thermometer registers 350 degrees.
Whisk the chicken broth, brown sugar, soy sauce, oyster sauce, ginger, garlic powder, and sesame oil together in a medium saucepan over high heat. In a small bowl, whisk together the water and cornstarch. When the sauce comes to a boil, whisk in the cornstarch slurry. When the sauce thickens, reduce the heat to medium and cook, while stirring, for 2 minutes. Turn the heat to low to keep warm while you fry the chicken.
Working in batches, deep-fry the chicken pieces for 3-5 minutes until they’re beautifully brown. Once they’ve all been fried, fry them a second time—again working in batches—for another 30-60 seconds to crisp*.
Add cashews and chili oil to a hot skillet and cook while shaking the pan for about 2 minutes until well toasted. Alternatively, if you don’t want to get another pan dirty, toss the oil and cashews together in a small bowl and microwave in 30-second increments, stirring occasionally.
Schmear a plate with scallion sauce; top with chicken pieces. Ladle sauce over the chicken, sprinkle with cashews. Eat, then eat seconds.
*The reason for the second fry: as hot fried chicken sits, it steams from the inside, which means that by the time you’re done frying everything, the breading is going to be a teeny bit soggy from all the steam it absorbed.. A quick dip back in the hot oil evaporates a lot of that water, and give you perfect crispy chicken that’s begging to be drowned in too much brown sauce.