So Far, Tso Good

General Tso’s Chicken (aka Tsao’s) is one of my most favorite “Chinese” dishes, but you won’t find it in China. The dish is thought to have originated in the early 1970s in New York, created by Peng Chang-kuei, a Chinese chef from the Hunan province in China. The original dish was based on traditional Hunan flavors — hot, sour and salty. Later, he decided to sweeten the dish to appeal to the American palate and it became wildly popular. The dish is named after Tso Tsung-t’ang (also translated as Zuo Zongtang), a historic Hunan general in the 1800s.

 

The Breading
Typical breading for most dishes consists of flour, bread crumbs or cornmeal. The major component in General Tso breading is cornstarch. The cornstarch breading results in a much crisper fried exterior that will not absorb the sauce as quickly, keeping the chicken crispier for longer. Make sure you keep one hand wet and one hand dry while breading to prevent your hand from becoming breaded as well.

 

The Sauce
Sweet, sour, salty and spicy — all the four main tastes are covered. There are many different variations using dark soy sauce to oyster sauce. You can use whatever you have at home, but keep in mind these four tastes. The sauce must also be thick enough to coat the fried meat, easily achieved with a simple starch such as corn or potato starch. Whisk the starch into the cold liquid in the proper amount; when heated (close to the boiling point), it gelatinizes and thickens the liquid.

Sweet: Sugar is the easiest component to pick out to represent this taste. Keep oyster and hoisin sauce in mind as they have a different flavor.

Sour: Rice vinegar may be the best-known vinegar with an Asian profile, but black vinegar, coconut vinegar and sugar cane vinegar also work great in the dish.

Salty: Traditional soy sauce is the most-common way to fill in the salty flavor profile, although fish sauce, dark soy and mushroom soy sauce also fit the bill.

Hot: Small dried red chilies seem to be plentiful in most Asian markets, but try using what you have on hand. A dash of cayenne pepper, Sriracha, garlic chili paste, even a little Frank’s hot sauce may do the trick.

 

The Filler
General Tso’s Chicken is usually served over rice, but a bed of noodles, fried rice or vegetables could also accompany it. There aren’t a lot of vegetables mixed into the dish. Garlic and ginger help flavor it, but disappear from sight during the cooking. Green onions add a bit of color and flavor but don’t overcrowd the dish. Try picking your favorite vegetables and cooking them separately to serve alongside the chicken.


General Tso’s Chicken
Serves 3 to 4

4 chicken breasts, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 egg
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
Salt and pepper as needed
¼ cup all-purpose flour
¾ cup cornstarch
Sauce base (recipe follows)
1 tablespoon dark sesame or chili oil
2 to 3 bird chili peppers (may substitute ⅛ teaspoon cayenne)
2 tablespoons minced ginger
1 tablespoon minced garlic
3 to 4 green onions, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon sesame seeds (optional)

Sauce Base
3 ounces water or chicken stock
3 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 tablespoons hoisin sauce
1 tablespoon dark sesame oil
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon fish sauce (optional)

Combine the chicken pieces with the soy sauce, vinegar, salt, pepper and egg. Mix flour and cornstarch together and lightly coat each piece of chicken. Fry at 365 degrees until the internal temperature is 165 degrees; reserve fried chicken pieces in a pan with paper towels.

In a separate bowl, whisk together all ingredients for the sauce base and reserve.

Heat sesame oil in a wok or sauté pan over medium-high heat. Sauté chilies, ginger, and garlic for 2 to 3 minutes until aromatic; add the green onions. Add the sauce base to the pan and stir constantly while bringing to a simmer. Once the liquid thickens, season to taste and add fried chicken pieces. Toss chicken with sauce to coat, and sprinkle with sesame seeds as desired. Serve with rice and vegetables.

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