Sweet, salty and tangy, General Tso’s chicken is imbued with complex flavors and interesting textures. And the thing that intrigues many cooks? How the crisp coating of the chicken stays that way even after soaking in the sauce. The trick? Starch, twice added at different stages of the cooking.
Surprisingly, despite being a popular take-out dish in Chinese restaurants in America, General Tso’s chicken does not appear to be a Chinese dish at all.
General Tso, however, 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.
- 1 whole egg or 2 egg whites, beaten
- 1 tsp. of salt
- freshly ground black (or white pepper)
- 2 tbsps. of corn starch
- Whisk all the ingredients together.
- 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
- Again, just whisk everything together.
- 10 skinless chicken thigh fillets, cut into bite-size pieces
- ½ 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
- ½ to ¾ c. of roasted cashew nuts
- 2 to 3 bird's eye chili, finely chopped
- sliced onion leaves or cilantro, or both, for ganish
- Add the chicken to the prepared marinade. Mix well. Cover the bowl and keep in the fridge for a few hours.
- 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 on kitchen paper.
- Pour off the oil until only about 2 tablespoonfuls remain (or use a clean wok). Add the ginger, garlic, cashew nuts and chilies, 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.