Who is General Tso?
General Tso’s chicken is touted as a Hunanese dish, but its history is both curious and controversial. The dish is purportedly named after Tso Tsung-t’ang, a Hunan-born statesman and military leader during the Qing Dynasty.
Peng Chang-kuei, the Taiwanese chef who invented the dish
Although there is more than one chef who claimed the honor of inventing the dish, the most widely accepted story is that it was first cooked in Taiwan by Peng Chang-kuei who was among the over two million people who fled to Taiwan with Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Government after the Kuomintang Party lost to Mao’s Communist Party.
Peng was born in Hunan and had been an apprentice of the famous chef Tsao Chingchen. As banquet chef, he invented many dishes in Taiwan. Although he later couldn’t remember exactly when he first cooked Genral Tso’s chicken except that it was sometime in the 1950s, in an interview in 2004, he mentioned that there was no sugar in the original recipe.
Originally the flavors of the dish were typically Hunanese — heavy, sour, hot and salty.“Hunan Resources” in The New York Times Magazine
The Americanization of General Tso’s chicken
When Peng opened his first restaurant in New York in the 1970s, he altered the recipe to suit to the palate of Americans. There have been numerous adaptations since by various chefs, and none of these adaptations taste like the original.
In our home version of the dish, we use chicken thigh fillets that we marinate in soy sauce, rice vinegar, chili oil, salt, grated garlic and grated ginger. The marinated chicken is ten tossed with starch before frying.
The chicken is deep fried until browned and crisp and left to allow any excess oil to drip while the sauce is prepared.
The sauce partly mimics the flavors of the marinade because it also has ginger, garlic, soy sauce and salt. But it is the sauce that gives the dish its signature sweetness because of the addition of hoisin sauce and sugar.
After the sauce has thickened, the fried chicken fillets are tossed in. General Tso’s chicken is ready to serve.
General Tso’s chicken
- 600 grams chicken thigh fillets skin on
- 2 tablespoons light soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon rice vinegar
- 1 tablespoon chili oil (we used Lee Kum Kee)
- 1 teaspoon rock salt
- ¼ teaspoon grated garlic
- ¼ teaspoon grated ginger
To cook the chicken
- 1 cup corn starch
- cooking oil for deep frying
Marinate the chicken
- Pat the chicken fillets dry and cut into one-inch cubes.
- Placed the cubed chicken fillets in a bowl, add the rest of the ingredients for the marinade and mix well.
- Cover the bowl and leave to soak in the fridge for at least an hour.
Fry the chicken
- Stir the chicken and drain into a large mixing bowl.
- Dump in a cup of corn starch and toss to coat each piece uniformly.
- Dump the contents of the bowl into a strainer, shake and toss a few times to remove excess starch.
- In a wok or frying pan, heat enough cooking oil to reach a depth of three inches.
- Drop in the chicken, one by one, and fry (in batches so as not to overcrowd the pan) until the crust is crisp and the chicken is cooked through. Each batch should be fully cooked after three minutes of frying.
Cook the sauce
- In a clean wok or frying pan, stir together all the ingredients for the sauce.
- Set the heat to medium and cook the sauce, stirring, until thickened and no longer cloudy.
- Set the heat to medium-low and continue cooking the sauce until reduced and thick enough for a canal to form when you drag a spatula across the bottom of the pan.
- Taste the sauce. Depending on whether the chicken broth is unseasoned or lightly seasoned, you may need to add salt to balance with the sweetness.
Assemble the dish
- Dump the fried chicken fillets into the sauce.
- Toss repeatedly until the chicken cubes have soaked up the sauce.
- Serve your General Tso's chicken topped with sliced scallions and toasted sesame seeds.