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Thursday, June 20, 2013 10:22 am

A commanding General Tso's chicken

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Make your own General Tso’s chicken to taste.
PHOTO BY PHIL MASTURZO/MCT
“We had friends who went to China, and they went to Peking where they make the ducks, and what they say is that the food over there is not as good as here. You can’t get a sauce as sweet and thick over there.”
– Eugene Levy in the movie
Waiting for Guffman

Ah, sweet-and-sour chicken. I loved it as a child. It was impossibly foreign and exotic, that bright red sauce, those chunks of peppers and onions and sometimes pineapple. The chicken pieces came cloaked in batter so thick that sometimes the meat was indiscernible.

As my palate became more sensitive, I realized there was little if any sour in most versions; regardless they were all insipidly sweet. As I learned more about Chinese food, I also discovered that it wasn’t even really Chinese. As I began experiencing the depth and breadth of Chinese regional cuisines, from fiery Sichuan hot pots to the dumplings and noodles of Northern China, sweet-sour chicken dropped off my radar.

A couple decades later, my son, Robb, told me about General Tso’s chicken. “It’s great,” he enthused. “Kind of like sweet-sour chicken, but way better. It’s got some sweetness, but you can really taste the sour. And it’s spicy. Not blow-your-head-off spicy, but there’s definitely some heat there.”

Trying it, I agreed with Robb. General Tso’s chicken was a more adult, more sophisticated version of sweet-sour chicken. I decided it must be the authentic Chinese dish, the ancestor of the Chinese-American restaurant staple that had been dumbed down for Western tastes.

Nope. It turns out that General Tso’s chicken is no more authentically Chinese at all. There was a Hunanese general in the Qing Dynasty, Zuo (1812-1885), but his descendents living in his hometown, Xiangyin, say it has no connection with him. And it’s not found there or elsewhere in Hunan province.

There are numerous stories about the origin of General Tso’s chicken, and more than a few restaurants claiming to have invented it, mostly in New York, but also in Taiwan. It’s also common in Great Britain and many of its former and present Commonwealth nations.

Throughout the Western world, General Tso’s chicken became not only extraordinarily popular, but became known as the classic example of Hunanese cuisine. But the food of Hunan is not so sweet. In the 1990s, a famous Chinese restaurateur opened an establishment that centered around introducing General Tso’s chicken to the Huanese. It soon closed; locals despised it.

Deep fry chicken or shrimp using a slotted spoon or strainer.
PHOTO BY PHIL MASTURZO/MCT
Truth be told, I don’t much care that General Tso’s chicken isn’t authentically Chinese, although I do think it’s good to recognize that fact for anthropologic reasons. As with Italian-American dishes never found in Italy, such as spaghetti with meatballs, I love General Tso’s chicken. It may be inauthentic, regardless, it’s scrumptious.

There are countless recipes of General Tso’s chicken. I’ve tinkered with various recipes to come up with my own version, with just the right balance of sweet/sour/hot flavor for my taste. Don’t be afraid to add or subtract some of those flavors to come up with the right balance for you. I also like to substitute shrimp for the chicken; the shrimp should be marinated no longer than an hour.

GENERAL TSO’S CHICKEN

For the chicken and the marinade:
• 1/4 c. Chinese cooking wine, dry sherry or dry vermouth
• 1 T. white vinegar
• 1 tsp. freshly ground black peppercorns
• 1 bay leaf
• 1 T. minced garlic
• 1 inch “coin” of ginger, peeled, smashed with the side of a knife, then minced
• 1 1/2 tsp. Chinese 5-spice powder
• 1 lb. boneless chicken, preferably thigh meat, cut into approximately 1-inch cubes

Combine the first 7 ingredients in a medium-sized bowl, then add the chicken and stir to coat thoroughly with the marinade. Let stand for at least 1 hour or, refrigerated, up to overnight. Remove from the marinade. Roll the pieces around in a kitchen towel or paper towels to remove excess marinade, then set them aside for an hour or so to let them dry off a bit. Reserve 1/4 cup of the marinade for the sauce.

For the batter:
• 2 T. Chinese cooking wine, dry sherry or dry vermouth
• 1 large egg white
• 1/2 c. cornstarch
• 1 T. soy sauce

In a large bowl, whisk together the batter ingredients until smooth. Add the chicken and toss to coat. Cover and marinate in the refrigerator at least half an hour or up to 2 hours.

For the sauce:
• 1 T. vegetable oil
• 8-12 dried Chinese red whole chilies
• 1/3 c. light brown sugar
• 1 T. cornstarch
• 1/4 c. reserved marinade
• 1/2 c. chicken stock or broth
• 2 T. oyster sauce
• 1 1/2 T. soy sauce
• 2 T. fish sauce
• 1 T. white-wine vinegar
• 1 1/2 tsp. ginger, minced
• 1 1/2 tsp. garlic, minced
• 1 tsp. hot chili flakes, or more or less to taste

Heat the oil in a wok or large heavy skillet over high heat until it’s hot but not smoking. Add the whole chilies and stir-fry until they just begin to brown. Immediately remove the chiles from the wok, drain on paper towels, and set aside.

Wipe the wok with paper towels and, off the stove, add the brown sugar and cornstarch. Stir until they are combined so that no lumps of cornstarch remain. Whisk in the remaining sauce ingredients and return the wok to the stove over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil and simmer, stirring frequently, for about 5 minutes, or until the sauce coats the back of a spoon. Remove from the heat and set aside.

To finish the dish:
Vegetable oil for deep frying

In a large wok or pot, heat enough vegetable oil to a depth of 3 inches to 350 F. Remove the chicken from the batter a few pieces at a time with a large slotted spoon or strainer, shaking it a bit to remove excess batter. Gently lower the chicken pieces into the hot oil, stirring if necessary to keep any pieces from sticking together. Fry until they are golden brown and cooked through, about 5 minutes. As the pieces are done, remove them from the oil, drain on paper towels, and keep warm.

Meanwhile, add the whole chili peppers to the sauce and reheat it over medium-low heat.

As soon as all the chicken has fried, add it to the sauce and stir to coat thoroughly. Serve immediately, garnished as desired and accompanied with rice. Serves 4-6 or more, depending on what else is being served.

For the garnish
(use any or all of the options):
• 1/2 c. toasted cashews
• Fresh cilantro sprigs
• Thinly sliced scallions
• 1/2 c. roughly chopped lightly toasted cashews
• Green onions, sliced on the bias, garnish
• 8-12 dried small Chinese chilies, or 2 fresh red Thai chilies

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.
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