It’s difficult to imagine that anyone in China has ever eaten anything even remotely resembling General Tso’s Chicken. Even the origins of the dish are a little murky. Ostensibly a delicacy with origins in the Hunan province (though Hunan cuisine doesn’t typically feature very much sweetness, opting instead for sour flavors), and named after General Tso Tsung-tang, the dish’s “history” reads like the stuff of legend, or at least, the stuff from the back of an imaginative Chinese restaurant menu in NYC. In the United States, however, it is the number one selling item in Chinese takeout restaurants; often, a combination of heavily-breaded overcooked chicken tossed in a thick, gloppy, sickeningly-sweet brown sauce, with a few dried chiles thrown in for good measure.
I had never been exposed to the dish until my first year in college, where the school’s hospital-style dining program was wildly out of sync with its high tuition. I was first served “General Tso’s Chicken” by the school’s chef, an old man named “Sam” whose other major contribution to the culinary world was the ability to scoop hot tuna salad onto English muffins while smoking. His version of the dish was made by the gallon using frozen chicken nuggets, and a mixture of honey and soy sauce. It was awful, inedible stuff, and his version of General Tso’s kept it off of my regular Chinese restaurant order for many years to follow.
Today, everything changed. Our interpretation stays true to the Chinese-American version of this classic, making refinements here and there without changing the nature of the dish. Our chicken is given a much lighter, but still crunchy coating, and the sweetness of the sauce is balanced by a fair amount of heat. The result is a General Tso’s Chicken like you just won’t find in Maine takeout restaurants, with a complexity and a depth of flavor that I never knew was possible in this much-maligned dish. Even if you have sworn General Tso’s off as Westernized junk, I urge you to give it a try.
- 1/4 cup chicken stock
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
- 2 tablespoons hoisin sauce
- 2 teaspoon Sriracha sauce
- 2 teaspoons sesame oil
- 3 tablespoons sugar
- 1/3 cup + 2 teaspoons cornstarch, divided
- 1 pound boneless skinless chicken breasts, but into bite-sized chunks
- 2 tablespoons dry white sherry
- Peanut oil, for frying
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 teaspoon fresh ginger, minced
- 6–8 “Japonese” dried red whole chiles
- 3 scallions, white and green parts, cut into half inch chunks
- In a small bowl, combine chicken stock, soy sauce, vinegar, hoisin, Sriracha, sesame oil, sugar, and 2 teaspoons of the cornstarch. Stir until smooth.
- In another bowl, toss chicken chunks with sherry and a pinch of salt, and set aside to marinate for 15 minutes.
- When ready to cook, toss chicken to coat evenly with remaining 1/3 cup of cornstarch. Chicken should have a dry coating of cornstarch; add a little more if coating seems moist. In a large skillet over medium heat, bring peanut oil to 325 degrees. Add chicken and cook, stirring often, until chicken is brown on all sides, about 4-5 minutes. Remove from skillet and drain on paper towels.
- Pour most of the oil out of the skillet, until only a thin coating remains in the pan. Add garlic and ginger to pan and stir until fragrant, about 15 seconds. Add whole chilies, chicken pieces, and scallion pieces, and toss to combine. Add sauce and simmer, stirring constantly, until sauce thickens, becomes shiny, and evenly coats chicken. Top with more sliced scallions and serve immediately with steamed rice.