As American as General Tso's Chicken

By Charleen - July 04, 2019


One of the most popular Chinese-American dishes, General Tso's chicken with its spicy, sweet-tart umami-laden bites is in many ways emblematic of the American experience. 

The initial version of General Tso's chicken, 左宗棠雞 (Zuǒ zōng táng jī) in Chinese, was created in Taiwan in 1955 by Chef Peng Chang-kuei 彭長貴, after he had fled mainland China along with other refugees who fanned out across the world to enrich the Chinese diaspora. The dish began as a spicy-tart, bone-in chicken dish, inspired by Chef Peng's native Hunan flavors. Just as our shores have always been enriched by those seeking refuge, the dish came into its own in New York City through adaptations made by two other NY chefs who traveled to Taipei looking for new ideas to imitate. These included losing the bones and adding sugar and a crispy-fried coating. When done well, General Tso's complex balance of flavors and textures truly live up to its iconic status.
Shortcut to the Love2Chow recipe.                   For General Tso's Cauliflower (vegan), click here. 
General Tso's chicken blends the spicy tart Hunan flavors with an attractive sweet, slightly sticky sauce, and of course garlic. When my son was 11, he confided that his favorite dish was over 2,400 miles away, at a strip mall restaurant called the China Buffet (3525 Pacific Coast Hwy, Torrance, CA 90505). What struck him about the LA version was that "you can see the garlic and chili's in it." I had not really paid much attention to this dish, preferring more traditional options on the buffet, but decided to try cooking it at home. 

The first recipe resulted in a gloppy mess of cornstarch, albeit with a nicely balanced sauce flavor. The next had no texture and tasted mostly of soy sauce. I also cannot recommend the recipe that accompanied The Search for General Tso (http://www.thesearchforgeneraltso.com), although I found the documentary to be fascinating. I never got around to trying the Serious Eats recipe because it seemed too fussy, but I was lucky to be able to try the dish at two restaurants in Taipei. This included the Peng Yuan Hunan Restaurant 彭園湘菜館, which Chef Peng opened in 1980, after he moved back from NY and Long Xiang Yuan 龍翔園.  The Taiwanese versions are a lot less sweet, but still quite tasty.


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After trying both the Changsha and Taiwan versions of Fuschia Dunlop's recipes, I found that the Taiwan version yielded the perfect texture, but something was missing from both versions. I decided that the bright notes from the peppers and vinegar (and sugar) were excessively muted by the presence of tomato paste. I started back at the beginning using only ingredients that added the flavors I was seeking. After 10 years, on and off, of trying different recipes and even visiting Chef Peng's flagship restaurant in Taipei, I was finally satisfied. I had developed and perfected my own recipe for General Tso's chicken -- just in time for my son's 21st birthday.  

Adapting to new ingredients and local tastes, while preserving elements of remembered flavors and traditions. This is the quintessential, multicultural American experience: the opportunity and freedom to explore and share and make something better from the blending of cultural backgrounds. I hope you all had a fabulous Independence Day!

Please enjoy the recipe and share what you think. Click here for a Printer formatted version. 

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Love2Chow General Tso’s Chicken 左宗棠雞 (Zuǒ zōng táng jī)                             May 7, 2017, edited July 17, 2019

Ingredients.
6-10 dried Tien Tsin red chili peppers (available at Penzey’s; or use dried cayenne peppers or red chili flakes)
¾ inch knob of ginger
2-3 medium cloves of garlic
Thinly sliced scallions

6 boneless skinless chicken thighs (1.5-1.8 lbs)
2 tsp light soy sauce (Wan Ja Shan Organic Aged)
½ tsp dark soy sauce (Pearl River Bridge Superior)
1 egg
2 Tbs. cornstarch
2 tsp. safflower oil
Oil for deep-frying.

Sauce:
3 Tbs. sugar
1 Tbs. red wine vinegar
½-1 Tbs. Chinkiang black rice vinegar
2 Tbs. Shaoshing rice wine or dry sherry
2 Tbs. light soy sauce

1.     Cut chili’s into 2-3 segments. Keep seeds and just use fewer if you don’t want it too hot.
2.     Scrape off ginger peel with teaspoon, cut off any dried tough parts, and mince. You should have around 2 tsp. Peel and mince garlic and add to ginger.
3.     Wash and slice scallions and set aside. (Cut up all non-meat ingredients for other recipes before dirtying board and knife with meat).
4.     Cut chicken into ¾ inch chunks and place in bowl.  Separate egg over small bowl to catch whites, and place yolk on meat. Add soy sauces and mix with chopsticks until blended.  Blend in cornstarch, and then oil.  (Freeze egg white for other use).
5.     Heat oil in wok to 350-375°F.  Add chicken in batches and cook 3-4 minutes until browned and crispy. Wait for oil to return to 350°F before adding more. Remove and drain on a paper towel.
6.     Meanwhile, mix sauce ingredients--sugar, vinegars, rice wine, soy sauce--in a small bowl. Kevin says to measure on the generous side (make use of surface tension) if you like saucy chicken.
7.     Strain frying oil through cloth in metal funnel into glass jar for reuse or disposal. (Leave about 1 Tbs if cooking vegetables to go with meal – stirfry the veggies, and then wipe out wok).
8.     Heat wok until drop of water evaporates in ~ 1 sec. Add 1 Tbs. oil. Add chili’s and stirfry 5 seconds. Add garlic and ginger and stirfry about 10 sec.
9.     Stir sauce and pour around edges of wok. It should start bubbling and thickening rapidly.
10. Return chicken to wok and toss to coat. Take off heat and garnish with green onions

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    4 comments

    1. Good Luck with your new blog!

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    2. Enjoyed reading the history behind this recipe and can’t wait to try your recipe!

      ReplyDelete
    3. It was wonderful! Kids loved it. Your recipe is very easy to follow!

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