General Tso's Chicken
By S. John Ross

It's not really a Chinese dish, but it's nevertheless one of the most popular dishes at Chinese restaurants here where I live, and elsewhere. General Tso's Chicken is very inexpensive to make, but some restaurants charge rather a lot for it, usually putting it with "Chef's Specialities" and the like on the menu, rather than with the ordinary chicken dishes. No fair! This is how to make it.

  • 1 lb chicken thighs, boned and cubed
  • 3 eggs, beaten
  • 1/2 cup and 2 tsp cornstarch
  • 5 dried pepper pods
  • 1-1/2 tbsp rice vinegar
  • 2 tbsp rice wine
  • 3 tbsp sugar
  • 3 tbsp soy sauce

In a large bowl, thoroughly blend the 1/2 cup of cornstarch and the eggs; add the chicken and toss to coat. If the mixture bonds too well, add some vegetable oil to separate the pieces.

In a small bowl, prepare the sauce mixture by combining the 2 tsp cornstarch with the wine, vinegar, sugar and soy sauce.

First-Stage Frying: Heat 1-2 inches of peanut oil in a wok to medium-high heat (350-400o). Fry the chicken in small batches, just long enough to cook the chicken through. Remove the chicken to absorbent paper and allow to stand (this step can be performed well in advance, along with the sauce mixture, with both refrigerated).

Second-Stage Frying: Leave a tablespoon or two of the oil in the wok. Add the pepper pods to the oil and stir-fry briefly, awakening the aroma but not burning them. Return the chicken to the wok and stir-fry until the pieces are crispy brown.

The General's Favorite Sauce: Add the sauce-mixture to the wok, tossing over the heat until the sauce caramelizes into a glaze (1-2 minutes). Serve immediately. Serves 4, along with steamed broccoli and rice.

Variations and Substitutions

Sherry substitutes well for the rice wine, but avoid "cooking sherry" if you can. Sugar in the sauce ranges from as little as a few teaspoons to a full half-cup in some recipes. Soy sauce, too, varies dramatically, rising as high as double that listed above. Nearly any sort of vinegar can be used. In some recipes, a tablespoon of soy sauce is added to the egg-and-cornstarch blend. In others, the chicken itself is marinated before being used, in either soy, wine, vinegar, or some combination of those.

Many recipes include a much lighter egg-and-cornstarch coating for the chicken (about 2 tbsp of starch and two eggs). I prefer the heavier coating; adjust to taste.

Optional Sauce Ingredients: A grind of fresh black pepper, a teaspoon of sesame oil, a teaspoon of MSG, a clove or two of garlic, a couple of fresh chopped scallions or green onions, 1-2 teaspoons of Chinese chili sauce, fresh ginger, a teaspoon of hoisin sauce, the minced rind of an orange, and many other items may be added to the sauce. Any vegetal additions should be added to the oil along with the chicken (the ginger can burn easily - add it last).

Light Tso Sauce: The traditional sauce for General Tso's is a heavy, spicy glaze, different from the lighter broth-based sauces found on most other Chinese dishes. Some prefer a lighter Tso sauce, too, and this can be achieved by tripling the cornstarch in the sauce and adding a half-cup of fluid. The "fluid" can be chicken broth, water, or even fruit juice (both orange and pineapple have been used). Cook the sauce only 'til it thickens, instead of waiting for a glaze. This version of the sauce is actually more common in the local restaurants; if you're a Tso fan, it might be what you're used to.

History

General Zou Zong-Tang was a general of the Qing (Manchu) Dynasty of China, responsible for supressing Muslim uprisings. His name was used to frighten Muslim children for centuries after his death. It is questionable whether or not the General (or his quartermaster) actually invented General Tso's Chicken . . . it seems more likely to have been the invention of Taiwanese immigrants to the United States and Europe, and then (according to some folks who've done some poking into that side of the history) popularized at a New York restaurant in the 1970s. Alternate spellings include General Cho, General Zo, General Zhou, General Jo, and General Tzo. It's pronounced "Djo," with the tongue hard against teeth.

Notes

The basis for this recipe was compiled from over forty different versions of the dish, combining the best aspects of each, averaging sauce ratios, and simplifying the basic dish to it's core ingredients.


This article is Copyright ©1997-1999 (per revisions) by S. John Ross.

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