The Circus Gardener's Kitchen

seasonal vegetarian recipes with a side helping of food politics

Kung Pao cauliflower

jump to recipe

Fifteen years ago China was a net exporter of grain. Now it is the second largest importer of grain in the world. It was once also the world’s leading producer of soya beans, but now it imports soya too.

The seeds of these extraordinary changes were sown in China’s economic reforms which began in the late 1970s. Since then, as its economy has developed, average incomes in China have risen sharply and the country now has a relatively affluent middle class which has developed a more sophisticated diet, moving away from basic staples towards a westernised diet involving much more meat consumption.

Some 1.35 billion people live in China, one fifth of the world’s population, and meat consumption requires plenty of grain and soya, hence the reason for China’s move from being a net exporter to becoming a net importer of the key components of animal feed.

This change in dietary preferences of such a significant proportion of the world’s population over a relatively short space of time has brought more urgency to a problem we already knew we faced – how do we feed a rapidly growing world population on shrinking amounts of arable land?

Some simple arithmetic might help answer that question. It takes 16 kg of grain and soya protein to produce 1 kg of beef protein. If we ate less meat, we could make better use of the farmland available to us by growing more plant protein for human consumption, making it easier to feed everyone.

And if we did that we would also help tackle another major problem facing humankind – global warming. The meat industry is, by far, the single biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.

cauliflower growingSzechuan peppercornscrushed chilliescauliflower marinating

This recipe is a small-scale reversal of the trend, being a vegan version of a classic meat dish from from China’s Szechuan province, a region with a rich and distinctive cuisine.

Named in honour of a 19th century governor of the province, at the heart of the dish is an oil called “ma-la”, which translates as “numbing-spicy hot”. The “spicy hot” element derives from the chilli and star anise whilst the “numbing” element comes from Szechuan peppercorn (not actually a pepper at all but the fruit of the prickly ash).

So this “numbing, spicy hot” oil provides the starting point for the dish. It follows that this is probably not a recipe for the faint hearted, but the more intrepid cook will be rewarded by a sumptuous dish brimming with rich, harmonious layers of flavour and heat.

If you cannot source roasted peanut oil, use another oil with a high smoke point, such as groundnut or rapeseed oil. Szechuan peppercorn are fairly widely available.

Kung Pao cauliflower


1 head of cauliflower, broken into florets, each about 1½-2 cm
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 red chillies, seeds in, finely chopped
2 cm piece of ginger, peeled and finely chopped
4 spring onions, sliced, including green parts
50 g unsalted peanuts, dry fried and roughly chopped
2 tbsp fresh coriander, chopped
50 g organic cornflour

for the ma-la cooking oil

125 ml roasted peanut oil (use groundnut oil if not available)
2 star anise
1 tsp Szechuan peppercorns
1 tsp dried chillies
1 tbsp toasted sesame oil

for the marinade

100 ml organic soy sauce
50 ml Chinese rice wine (use sake or dry sherry if not available)
1 tbsp maple syrup


1. First, make the ma-la cooking oil. Place a wok over a high heat. Add the oil and once it is hot enough to start shimmering add the star anise, the Szechuan peppercorns and the chilli flakes and stir to combine. Keep on a high heat for thirty seconds then remove from the heat. Sir in the sesame oil and leave to cool for a few minutes before straining the oil through a muslin cloth placed over a fine sieve.

2. Next make the marinade. Mix together the soy sauce, rice wine and maple syrup. Add the cauliflower florets, mix to coat them in the marinade and set to one side for at least 30 minutes. Put the cornflour in a separate bowl next to the cauliflower.

3. Place a wok over a high heat and pour in half of the ma-la oil. When the oil is hot, lift out the cauliflower florets individually from the marinade and roll them in in the cornflour until they are coated. Keep the remaining marinade to one side.

4. Fry the florets in the ma-la oil , stirring continuously, until they are evenly browned and crisp. This will take about 3-4 minutes and you may need to do it in 2 or 3 batches to prevent overcrowding the pan which would also reduce the oil temperature. Add a little more ma-la oil between batches if necessary, but be sure to keep back 2 tablespoons for the next step. Drain the cauliflower on kitchen paper and set to one side.

5. Wipe the wok clean and return to a high heat. Add the remaining ma-la oil. when the oil begins to smoke add the chilli, garlic and ginger and stir fry vigorously for 30 seconds before adding the spring onions. Continue to stir.

6. After a further minute, add the cauliflower, peanuts and most of the coriander, reserving a little for garnish. Stir for 30 seconds then add the reserved marinade, which will quickly bubble up. Cook for one minute more, stirring or tossing the wok so that the cauliflower is coated with sauce. Remove the wok from the heat.

7. Serve the Kung Pao cauliflower scattered with the remaining coriander, alongside plain steamed rice and, if you like, some simple steamed vegetables such as pak choi, broccoli or green beans.

Categories: dairy free, gluten free, vegan

88 replies

  1. Sounds and looks amazing! Definitely going to try this! Thanks for sharing!

  2. What a killer combo. This is for our dinner tomorrow night now, have a cauli waiting in the fridge and Szechuan pepper in the pantry. Oh yes, oh yes.

  3. Wow! I’ll definitely be making this soon!

  4. Looks so delicious!

  5. Looks fabulous! What a fantastic way to serve cauliflower. Really appreciate this recipe

  6. This looks wonderful! I love trying new things with cauliflower, this is definitely going to happen! Thanks for the awesome recipe 🙂

  7. This looks and sounds amazing. I need inspiration for cauliflower, so thank you.

  8. Steve, thank you so much for this inspired use of the humble cauli – I have made Kung pao tofu before and love the flavours. Brilliant recipe!

  9. Lovely, soon will give a try.

  10. I have a whole head of cauliflower in my fridge, this looks amazing.

  11. Made this for dinner tonight and LOVED it! Spicy yet complex, it’s a keeper alright. Awesome dish!

  12. YUM this looks gorgeous! Cauliflower is such a good vegetable when cooked well and the flavours here sound amazing. Your writing about China was also really interesting – I had no idea that there had been such significant dietary changes in the last few decades!

  13. Stunning pictures and awesome recipe! Glad I came across your post today, I’m saving it!

  14. Looks wonderful, a great recipe to tempt us away from consuming too much meat!

  15. This is seriously the best looking Kung Pao Cauliflower ever! I’m definitely making this. Pinned!

  16. Sounds right up my alley! Have a small problem though – we don’t get rice wine where I live and neither do we use alcohol , could you suggest an acceptable substitute for the rice wine ? Rice vinegar is all I could think of but not sure if that would ruin the dish .
    Much thanks in advance !

    • Hi Ninu.

      I can’t recommend a suitable replacement ingredient, taste-wise, for the rice wine, so would suggest omitting it and instead making up the volume difference by a mixture of soy sauce and water, so the marinade would comprise: 125 ml soy sauce, 25 ml water and 1 tbsp maple syrup. This should still work well: much of the unique flavour of the dish comes from the infused oil. If you do try this suggestion please let me know how you get on.


  17. Just thought I’d say I keep your recipes on a special page on my desk top.

  18. This one looks special! As a veggie who can’t abide tofu (and, by god, I’ve tried!) I struggle to find ways to get some of those typical meat dish, but nevertheless tasty, marinades and sauces into my food – the slightly drier spicier ones. This dish looks like it will really do it. As ever, thank you!

    • Hi Stevie

      Thanks for your kind comments. I do think you’ll like this one.

      As for tofu, it’s all about the way you cook it – I would suggest that you try my Vietnamese style tofu with pak choi and basil recipe: I have a feeling that it might just change your mind…


  19. Thanks for posting this beautiful recipe. I have some cauliflowers ready to harvest from my garden and wanted to do something spicy and special. This is just the thing. Also, thanks for the reminder about prickly ash. I also have some in my garden and have been wanting to try it out.

  20. What kind of chilies are red chilies please? Red bell pepper?

  21. Holy crap this is good. Wish I could attach a pic!

  22. Looks fabulous! I do tend to be, well, faint-hearted when it comes to spicy, though…any suggestions on how to reduce the heat while maintaining the spirit of the dish?

    • Thank you for commenting. Try halving the chilli, Szechuan peppercorn and star anise when making the oil and do the same with the chilli, ginger and garlic for the cauliflower marinade. You will still have the key flavour elements but a little more subdued and less spicy.


  23. Sensible well written recipe. Where do I sign up for more?

    • Thank you for your kind comment. If you click on the “follow” button under the heading”Follow Blog via Email” (on the right hand side near the top of this page) and then provide your e-mail address you will automatically receive an e-mail each time a new recipe is posted.

      Best wishes


  24. Oh wow – this looks and sounds yummy !
    My favorite dish is Kung Pao chicken and I LOVE cauliflower so I cannot wait to try this 🙂

  25. I need to eat more cauliflower! Thank you! Might need to tweak it a little because of dietary restrictions but I know what to do so I am very excited to try this! Thank you for sharing!

  26. Looks Wonderful! I can’t wait to try!

  27. Reblogged this on kaylasjourneytohealth and commented:
    The pic says it all…can’t wait to give this a go.

  28. this was munchie making this again

  29. How good is the humble cauliflower! Great recipe.

  30. Had it today – even in my stripped-down version, it was glorious! Thanks a lot!

  31. Looks delicious; will try it out.

  32. There is a restaurant in my town that makes this dish and it is so spectacular!This is the recipe that they must use. I’m wondering if anyone has heard of buying the ma’la oil at a Chinese grocer. I’m looking to cut down on some prep time. Thank you!

    • Hi Cat, and thanks for commenting. If your local restaurant is using my recipe then I’m very flattered. I don’t know if ma la oil can be purchased from a specialist store, I’d expect so, but another alternative would be to increase the quantities in the recipe and then bottle the excess until ready to use again. Steve

  33. Just made this and loved it! would you mind if I wrote it up for my blog? ( I will include a link to your site)


  1. Friday Favorites - Iowa Girl Eats
  2. 21 Ways To Turn Cauliflower Into Comfort Food | CNN LIFEHACKS 2015
  3. 21 Ways To Turn Cauliflower Into Comfort Food - Alex Poucher
  4. 21 Cauliflower Recipes For Anyone Trying To Eat Fewer Carbs | CNN LIFEHACKS 2015
  5. 21 Cauliflower Recipes For Anyone Trying To Eat Fewer Carbs | Health ,Beauty and Lifestyle
  6. MealClips | Food Recipes Blog | 21 Cauliflower Recipes For Anyone Trying To Eat Fewer Carbs
  7. 21 Cauliflower Recipes For Anyone Trying To Eat Fewer Carbs | Roumor
  8. 21 Cauliflower Recipes For Anyone Trying To Eat Fewer Carbs – Natmir
  9. Beautyglife » 21 Cauliflower Recipes For Anyone Trying To Eat Fewer Carbs
  10. 21 Recetas con coliflor para los que quieren dejar de comer carbohidratos – Venezuela Mundial
  11. 21 Recetas con coliflor para los que quieren dejar de comer carbohidratos – EbomNews
  12. Kung Pao Cauliflower |
  13. Recopilación de nuevas recetas saludables (II) | Sal y Azúcar
  14. A New Food Trend: Cauliflower | Healthy Living in Austin, Texas
  15. 21 Cauliflower Recipes For Anyone Trying To Eat Fewer Carbs – Drapsy

Leave a Reply