The thing about stir fries is that they cannot be cooked in advance. Which makes them none-too-ideal dishes for large gatherings especially if, like me, you prefer to distribute the cooking over several days so that you don’t look and feel like wilted vegetable by the time the guests arrive.
But if you’re cooking for a small group — say, four to six — then I highly recommend General Tso’s chicken. There will be only six or so of us for the Noche Buena meal so I’m really thinking of serving this dish along with a vegetable dish and a soup or salad. I’m very non-traditional, if you don’t know it yet, so you won’t find a whole leg of ham (we did that once but never again) nor quezo de bola (I don’t even like quezo de bola) on my dinner table on Christmas.
Now, about this dish.
General Tso was a real person.
General Tso Tsungtang, or as his name is spelled in modern Pinyin, Zuo Zongtang, was born on Nov. 10, 1812, and died on Sept. 5, 1885. He was a frighteningly gifted military leader during the waning of the Qing dynasty, a figure perhaps the Chinese equivalent of the American Civil War commander William Tecumseh Sherman. He served with brilliant distinction during China’s greatest civil war, the 14-year-long Taiping Rebellion, which claimed millions of lives.
Tso was utterly ruthless. He smashed the Taiping rebels in four provinces, put down an unrelated revolt called the Nian Rebellion, then marched west and reconquered Chinese Turkestan from Muslim rebels… [From Washington Post article reproduced in Wired New York]
Yet, it appears that he did not invent this chicken dish nor was it named after him. It would seem that General Cho’s chicken is a pretty recent concoction (none too original at that) by a Hunan chef and it first appeared in New York City in the 1970s. At least, that’s one of the theories. A cookbook author, “Eileen Yin-Fei Lo states in her book The Chinese Kitchen that the dish originates from a simple Hunan chicken dish, and that the reference to Zongtang in Zuo Zongtang chicken was not a reference to Zuo Zongtang’s given name, but rather a reference to the homonym zongtang, meaning ‘ancestral meeting hall’.”
Interesting but who the heck cares, really? Suffice to say that the dish is delicious and easy to make.
- 10 skinless chicken thigh fillets, cut into bite-size pieces
1/2 c. of corn starch
2 to 3 c. of vegetable cooking oil
1 tbsp. of finely chopped garlic, about 4 cloves
1 tbsp. of grated ginger
1/2 to 3/4 c. of roasted cashew nuts
2 to 3 hot chili peppers, finely chopped
sliced onion leaves or cilantro, or both, for ganish
For the marinade:
1 egg, beaten
1 tsp. of salt
freshly ground black (or white pepper)
2 tbsps. of corn starch
For the sauce:
3 tbsps. of light soy sauce
3 tbsps. of hoisin sauce
1-1/2 tbsps. of Chinese rice wine
1-1/2 tbsps. of rice vinegar
1 tbsp. of sugar
- In a bowl, mix all the ingredients for the marinade.
Add the chicken. Mix well. Cover the bowl and keep in the fridge for several hours. This is a technique that I have seen Kylie Kwong use to make sure that the meat turns out extra crisp after frying. It seems to work.
After several hours in the fridge, it’s time to fry them.
Heat the cooking oil in a wok or frying pan. When you see fine wisps of smoke appear along the edges of the wok, the oil is ready. Don’t wait until the oil is smoking profusely — it will be too hot by then. Dredge each chicken piece in corn starch and drop in the hot oil. Fry in batches, six or so pieces at a time, so as not to overcrowd the pan which will result in a drastic temperature drop. You don’t want that to happen because the chicken will cook in steam instead of frying. Drain the cooked chicken in kitchen paper.
Mix together the ingredients for the sauce.
Pour off the oil until only about 2 tablespoonfuls remain (or use a clean wok). Add the ginger, garlic, cashew nuts and chili peppers and cook over high heat, stirring, until very fragrant. Pour in the sauce and bring to the boil. Add the chicken pieces. Turn off the heat. Toss and stir to coat each chicken piece.
Transfer to a platter and garnish with onion leaves or cilantro, or both. Serve at once.
Cooking time (duration): 20 minutes excluding marinating time
Number of servings (yield): 4 to 5