Citizens – today is the first day of Chinese New Year, the year of the Ram! Gong Hey Fat Choy – 恭禧發財 – Wishing all of you to be prosperous in the coming year!
To celebrate, let’s fix a travesty of Chinese takeout cuisine, shall we?
General Tso’s Chicken has become the punchline to a terrible Chinese food joke – the trademark poster child of Americanized takeout dishes. A gloppy, sweet and cloying mess, with mystery meat exposing itself to you in a deep-fried jacket of sodden floury despair.
This dish comes from nobler lineage and deserves better! My version of the recipe restores honor and glory to the dish with true powerful flavors, harmonious balance and an addictively twice-fried crunch. Velveting (marination) of the chicken in egg whites adds suppleness and tenderness to the meat, and the use of alcohol in place of water in the breading adds an unmatched toothsome crunchiness.
So just who was this eponymous General Tso, anyway? Did he even exist or was he simply the indigestible dream remnant of a poor Chinese cook’s last meal?
He did indeed exist – allow one Generalissimo to share another General’s history!
General Tso Tsung Tong (1812-1885) was a very famous General under the Manchu Dynasty and his military activities took him to many parts of China.
He was a very active person and loved his food, especially meat. Everywhere he went, the local magistrates in order to cultivate his favor, would prepare special feasts in his honor, perhaps to solicit favors and at least so that he would think kindly of them. He was a hard person to please, but try they did.
Once he was sent to Xinjiang on a military expedition. The people of this western border-province were mainly Muslims whose religion did not allow them to eat pork; so the general’s diet was severely curtailed. Three months later when he got back, specifically to Lanzhour, a big feast was served in celebration of his successful expedition. He told his associates that although he was not entertained with song and dance, this elaborate and bountiful meal more than made up for the very long and tough expedition where he had no pork to eat.
In 1875, the Dowager Tse Xi promoted him to the royal court. She held a banquet in his honor in the capital, Beijing. At that banquet, they made sure that he had double servings of all the entrees. The general would always finish his portion with one sweep of his chopsticks, as if to say, he was not impressed.
After the above banquet, one of his compatriots asked him “Old friend, at one seating you can devour so much meat. It is as the old saying goes: A general’s fame is as big as his appetite. I hope that stomach of yours can live up to your fame”. The general smiled and retorted: “Your people love to put words in others people’s mouths. What do you know? Instead of meat you can only eat the roots of vegetables. I am lucky that I enjoy meat. Maybe one day I will be stigmatized and might even be called: The Meat Eating General.”
Everyone surmised that the chicken recipe in question was probably the general’s favorite so the chef who prepared it named it after him.
Enjoy my version of what is a true classic dish, Citizens!
Battle on – The Generalissimo
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into ½ to ¾-inch chunks (or use breast meat, if you prefer)
1 ½ quarts vegetable or peanut oil for deep frying
Ingredients (for marinating the chicken):
1 egg white
2 tablespoons dark soy sauce – this is NOT regular soy sauce (which in Chinese cooking is referred to as “light” soy sauce). It has a more molasses color and flavor and is delicious! Pick up a bottle at your local Asian grocer or buy 2 bottles here
2 tablespoons Shaoxing wine or dry sherry
2 tablespoons 80-proof vodka
¼ teaspoon baking soda
3 tablespoons cornstarch
For the Dry Coating:
½ cup flour
½ cup cornstarch
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon kosher salt
Ingredients (for the sauce mixture):
3 Tbsp. sugar
3 Tbsp. light soy sauce
2 Tbsp. dark soy sauce
2 Tbsp. shaoxing rice wine
1 Tbsp. white vinegar
1 Tbsp. Chinese Red Vinegar – buy it here
1 Tbsp. Chinese sesame oil (Kadoya brand preferred)
1 ½ Tbsp. cornstarch mixed thoroughly with ½ cup chicken broth
2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
3 cloves garlic, chopped
2 Tbsp. shredded ginger
4 stalks scallion, chopped (white part only) + 2 Tbsp. minced green part only
12 dried red hot peppers (chiles de arbol or “Heaven facing upwards” chiles)
Ingredients to complete the dish:
Chicken and sauce as prepared above
1 cup previously stir-fried slightly blackened broccoli flowerettes for the final dish
1. Combine sugar, soy sauces, shaoxing, vinegars, and sesame oil in a bowl and mix well.
2. For the Marinade: Beat egg whites in a large bowl until broken down and lightly foamy. Add soy sauce, wine, and vodka and whisk to combine. Set aside half of marinade in a small bowl. Add baking soda and cornstarch to the large bowl and whisk to combine. Add chicken to large bowl and turn with fingers to coat thoroughly. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside in refrigrator for 1 hour.
For the Dry Coat: Combine flour, cornstarch, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl. Whisk until homogenous. Add reserved marinade and whisk until mixture has coarse, mealy clumps. Set aside.
3. Heat 1 1/2 quarts peanut, vegetable, or canola oil in a large wok or Dutch oven to 350°F and adjust flame to maintain temperature.
Working one piece at a time, transfer chicken from marinade to dry coat mixture, tossing in between each addition to coat chicken. When all chicken is added to dry coat, toss with hands, pressing dry mixture onto chicken so it adheres, and making sure that every piece is coated thoroughly.
Lift chicken one piece at a time, shake off excess coating, and carefully lower into hot oil (do not drop it). Once all chicken is added, cook, agitating with long chopsticks or a metal spider, and adjusting flame to maintain a temperature of 325 to 375°F, until chicken is cooked through and very crispy, about 4 minutes. Transfer chicken to a paper towel-lined bowl to drain.
4. Heat the oil in the wok to 375 F. Add the pre-fried chicken pieces and keep turning them for one or two minutes, until each piece is heated through.
5. Line a dish with paper towels and place the twice fried chicken on the paper to drain off any excess oil.
6. Pour out the oil from the wok and wipe the wok clean with a paper towel. Reserve 1 1/2 teaspoon of the oil for the next step.
7. Heat the wok and add the reserved oil, when hot add the garlic, and ginger. Keep stirring for a few seconds, add scallions and hot pepper, saute for one minute.
8. Add the first sauce mixture and mix well, then gently add the cornstarch broth and keep stirring until the sauce is thickened and turns translucent. If the sauce is too thick, add additional chicken broth and vinegar as needed.
9. Add the chicken, mix well, and garnish with previously stir-fried lightly blackened broccoli florets which are placed around the chicken for color contrast. Serve hot.