Wednesday, January 11, 2012

How Authentic is this Chinese General?

For dinner the other night, I made General Tso's Chicken over steamed white rice and wondered...who is General Tso anyway; was he a real person?  Not having any books on China's history, it was to the internet I turned for research.  From what I could find, there was a general named Tso Tsung-tang or Zuo Zongtang, not sure why two different names, who lived from 1812 to 1885.  He came from the Hunan Province and was a general during the Qing dynasty.  There is no record of his inventing a recipe named after himself; nor can any living relations now trace back this recipe to him.

Seems that a Taiwanese chef named Peng Chang-kuei (or Peng Jia) made up the recipe in the 1970's.  He opened up a restaurant in New York City and introduced his updated versions of Hunan cuisine, including General Tso's Chicken.  Normally Hunan cuisine is spicy, but not sweet.  Peng Jia altered his original recipe by adding sugar to make it more appealing to American taste buds.  He did open up another restaurant in Taiwan in the 1990's which featured his altered recipes; it failed as the diners were not too keen on the sweetness of many of the dishes.

General Tso's is similar to Sesame Chicken or Crispy Orange Chicken with slight alterations in ingredients and taste; sometimes it is served with sesame seeds, sometimes not; depends on the person making it.  Another difference is the hot peppers; they may be finely diced before addition, or the entire pods can be seen in the dish.  The chicken is cut into bite sized pieces and batter fried; once again, depending on the cook, I have seen the chicken (same for Sesame and Orange) in thin slices and unbattered.  The original version is battered fried chicken and whole hot pepper pods, no sesame seeds and the only other vegetable is broccoli or scallions.  Nowadays you can order General Tso's with pork, shrimp, even tofu and a variety of vegetables will be incorporated into the dish.

General Tso’s Chicken


4 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves, cut into 1” pieces
¼ cup cornstarch
2 large eggs, beaten
1 ½ tsp minced garlic
1 ½ tsp minced ginger
1 cup soy sauce
½ cup rice vinegar (if unavailable, substitute white vinegar)
½ cup sherry
2 tsp sugar
canola or peanut oil (1/2 cup if using Wok; 2 cups if using skillet)
2 dried cayenne peppers, seeded and minced (2, 3 = mild, 4, 5=medium, 6 or more=hot)
1 cup each red bell pepper and carrots, sliced
1 cup snow pea pods or sugar snap pea pods
1 cup broccoli, chopped
white, brown or fried rice

Option: substitute Thai chili paste for the sugar and cayenne peppers; 1 Tbsp=2 peppers


In a large bowl, mix together the chicken, cornstarch and eggs. In a small bowl, mix together the garlic, ginger, soy sauce, vinegar, sherry and sugar.

Heat the oil in a Wok, or large skillet; fry the chicken pieces (7-8 at a time) until crisp (4-6 minutes); drain on paper towels. Discard oil, except for 2 Tbsp; pour in mixture from small bowl plus chicken, cayenne peppers, and vegetables. Mix and cook for 3-4 minutes; until all vegetables are heated through. Serve over rice.

Makes 4-6 servings.

Mary Cokenour

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