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General Tso's Chicken: an adventure in cooking

General Tso's Chicken: an adventure in cooking


Every once in awhile, a recipe I’d been meaning to make never happens. Back in 2007 I bought an extraordinary Chinese cookbook by Fuchsia Dunlop, “Revolutionary Chinese Cooking. Recipes from Hunan Province,” and bookmarked General Tso’s Chicken with the intention of cooking it that night.

Fast-forward to a few days ago when I finally got around to cooking this dish. Its hot and sour sauce enrobes strips of deep-fried crispy/tender chicken thighs, and it is so delicious I couldn’t stop eating it.

As a rule, I tend to stay away from deep-fried foods, but Ms. Dunlop’s description of the dish’s taste and history has had such a grip on me all these years that I finally succumbed and headed to the kitchen.

It turns out that General Tso’s Chicken is an invented dish, created in Taiwan by a Hunanese chef, Peng Chang-kuei, in the 1950s. Although it didn’t exist in Hunanese cuisine historically, it does carry the flavors that are typically Hunanese—heavy, sour, hot, and salty. And General Tso was a real nineteenth-century Chinese general!

I consider this to be an adventure in cooking. You will be totally delighted with the flavors and textures, and the actual process of deep-frying is a thrill.

I like to serve broccoli with General Tso’s Chicken, and the stir-fry recipe here is quick and easy and can be cooked ahead of time because it tastes really good hot, warm, or at room temperature. Happy cooking!

General Tso’s Chicken

Makes 4-6 servings

I’ve tweaked Fuchsia Dunlop’s recipe for this classic Chinese dish by doubling the ingredients and suggesting substitutions, when appropriate. She uses potato flour as a thickener, but cornstarch, tapioca starch, rice flour or quinoa flour will work just fine. And if you’d rather dine on chicken breast instead of thighs, that’s perfectly OK.

The chicken is unbelievably crusty and tender and there’s just enough sauce to moisten the fried strips. Ms. Dunlop deep-fries the chicken in peanut oil. I do the job in refined coconut oil. Your choice.

Note that the recipe says to use light soy and dark soy. Use any soy sauce you happen to have in your cupboard. Dark soy is slightly sweet and it darkens the color of the food.

This recipe says to spice up the dish with dried red chilies. The amount of chilies suggested will make the dish very spicy hot. Adjust the number of chilies to your liking. You may leave them out altogether, but even one chili will add to the dish’s overall taste without making it too hot to handle.

Sauce Ingredients

2 tablespoons tomato paste

2 tablespoons water

1 teaspoon potato flour or a suggested substitute

1 teaspoon dark soy sauce

1 tablespoon light soy sauce

2 tablespoons rice vinegar

6 tablespoons water

Chicken Ingredients

1 1/2 pounds boneless and skinless chicken thighs

1 teaspoon dark soy sauce

4 teaspoons light soy sauce

2 egg yolks

4 tablespoons potato flour or a suggested substitute

1 quart cooking oil, refined coconut or peanut

6 to 10 dried red chilies (strictly optional if you don’t like spicy heat)

4 teaspoons finely chopped ginger

4 teaspoons finely chopped garlic

1 tablespoon sesame oil

2 scallions, thinly sliced

1. Make the sauce by whisking together all the ingredients in a small bowl.

2. Open up the chicken thighs, rinse under cool tap water, and pat them dry. Examine the bone side of the meat and cut away any large pieces of fat. Slice the thighs into 1/4-inch-wide strips and put them into a large bowl.

3. Add the soy sauces and egg yolks and mix well. Stir in the potato flour or substitute and 4 teaspoons of your cooking oil, peanut or refined coconut (you’ll have to melt the coconut oil first).

4. If using the chilies, wear gloves, and use scissors to snip the pods into 3/4-inch pieces; discard the seeds. Put the prepared chilies into a small bowl.

5. To cook, put the cooking oil into a large wok. Turn the heat up to high and heat until the oil reaches a temperature between 350 and 400 degrees. Add about one-third of the chicken pieces and fry them, stirring almost constantly with a couple of wooden chopsticks, for 3 to 4 minutes, until the chicken is crisp and nicely browned. Remove the chicken from the fat with a slotted spoon and set the strips on a large plate.

6. Return the temperature of the fat to between 350 and 400 degrees. Repeat the cooking twice more with half the remaining chicken each time. Remember to bring the temperature back to between 350 and 400 degrees for the last frying. All the chicken is now on a plate.

7. Strain all the hot oil out of the wok into a heatproof vessel. A saucepan is fine. Carefully wipe the wok clean with a towel or a wad of paper towels.

8. Put the wok back on high heat and add 4 tablespoons of the strained oil. When the oil is hot, add the chilies, if using, and stir-fry for just a few seconds until the pods start to change color. Immediately add the ginger and garlic and stir-fry a few seconds longer, until fragrant. Add the sauce, stirring quickly, until the sauce thickens. Add the chicken to the wok and toss and stir with vigor to coat the chicken strips with sauce.

9. Take the wok off the heat, stir in the sesame oil, and transfer the chicken to a warmed serving dish. Scatter the scallions on top, and bring to the table. Serve with hot rice.

Quick Stir-Fried Broccoli

Makes 4 to 6 servings

This recipe, adapted from Irene Kuo’s “The Key to Chinese Cooking,” is delightfully colorful, fragrant, tasty, and quick to make. You can get it all cooked before frying the chicken because it’s delicious, hot, cold, or at room temperature.

1 head of broccoli, about 2 pounds

3 tablespoons peanut oil or refined coconut oil

2 quarter-sized slices peeled ginger

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon sugar

1/2 cup chicken broth or water

1 tablespoon sesame oil

1. Cut the flowerets off the head of broccoli. They should be about 1 1/2-inches in size. Peel the stem and cut into 1/4-inch thick slices. Rinse and drain well.

2. Heat a wok or large, heavy skillet over high heat until hot; add the oil, swirl the pan and heat the oil for about 30 seconds.

3. Drop in the ginger slices and press them into the oil. Add the broccoli. Stir and toss about 15 seconds. Turn the heat down to medium-high, and continue stirring and tossing the broccoli until it turns a brilliant green.

4. Add the salt and sugar and toss briefly. Add the broth or water, cover the pan, and steam-cook vigorously over medium-high heat for 2 1/2 minutes.

5. Remove the cover and stir and cook the broccoli until all the liquid has disappeared. Drizzle in the sesame oil, give the broccoli a few big stirs, and transfer to a hot serving dish. Serve at any temperature you like.

Greg Patent is a James Beard Award-winning cookbook author for “Baking in America,” a food journalist, blogger, and radio co-host for “The Food Guys” on Montana Public Radio. Please visit his blog,, and follow him on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

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