General Tso’s Chicken

July 25, 2011 § Leave a comment

E: The summer has been getting busy for both of us, with me working a full 40 hours and research work picking up for Joanna. And so with things getting a bit more stressful, we felt like making some comfort food that wasn’t risotto. And that was when we realized that neither of us had been to a Chinese restaurant in quite some time. So, both of us craving some Chinese takeaway, we decided to try making it at home instead. Something classic and fried was in order, so we settled on doing a version of General Tso’s Chicken, in some ways the original Americanized Chinese dish—with its many names (Tso, Tsao, Gao, Gau, &c.) and many versions, all of which bear little resemblance to the traditional Hunan food it sometimes purports to be.

it's like takeaway, but at home and 20 times more effort!

But did it satisfy our Chinese food cravings? Yes and no. I thought it was excellent, better than most General Tso’s I’ve had in restaurants; I really liked the tomato flavors in the sauce, which gave it a bit of richness and piquancy that I often find lacking in overly-sweet restaurant sauces. Plus, I enjoyed that this dish was a bit less oily than you often see. With a little more practice getting the frying times right, and some more dried pepper to give it a bit more kick, I think I would be set for life. That said, I’m not the biggest fan of General Tso’s in general (I almost never buy it for myself, but usually steal a piece from whomever I’m eating with), preferring my dishes a little more spicy and a little less sweet, which means this version falls right in line with my tastes. Joanna, though temporarily sated by this Chinese food adventure, still prefers the sweeter restaurant versions, as I’m sure she’d be happy to explain for herself.

J: For me, General Tso’s Chicken is pretty much what I think of when I think of Chinese delivery.  It was love at first bite with me and this dish, and although I do thoroughly enjoy legitimate Chinese food, when I’m craving Americanized Chinese, I want the “genuine” article — overly sweet, MSG-laden, and dripping in sauce.  Yes, yes, I am a foodie and I still have a weakness for Chinese delivery.  It can happen!

So, Erik is right.  This dish, though it was super tasty and did satisfy me for the moment, is not quite up to par for me in terms of the General Tso’s I’ve had before; I was really craving something that you could sort of feel clogging up your arteries as you ate, and sadly for me it just didn’t have that je ne sais quoi that some Chinese delivery has.  But it is most certainly worth a try if you like General Tso’s, because who knows — if your tastes lean more towards Erik’s, you might just have found a replacement for your usual order-out!  Now, let’s get going.

General Tso’s Chicken
(slightly modified from original recipe found here)
1 lb boneless, skinless chicken thighs
6 dried red chilis (we could not find red chilis for the life of us, so we used copious amounts of red pepper flakes)
2 tsp minced ginger
2 tsp finely chopped garlic
1 c peanut oil for deep-frying, or about enough to be 1-2 inches deep in your frying pan
1 c cornstarch, for coating the chicken pieces (you may need less or more)
Optional, for garnishing: white sesame seeds and/or scallions, thinly sliced

For the marinade:
2 tsp soy sauce
2 tsp sesame oil
1 egg yolk

For the sauce:
1 1/2 tbsp tomato paste, mixed with 1 tbsp water
1 tsp cornstarch
3 tsp white sugar
2 tsp soy sauce
1 tsp rice vinegar
3 tsp chicken stock or water

J: So, start with the marinade.  Cut up the chicken thighs into small cubes, approximately 1 inch on each side.  Mix all the ingredients for the marinade in a medium-sized bowl, and add the chicken pieces to the bowl.  Toss them so that they get fairly thoroughly coated in the marinade and then let them sit (preferably in the fridge!) for about 15-20 minutes.


E: Add all the ingredients for the sauce into a mixing bowl, and whisk together. The cornstarch will clump a little, though thorough whisking will often solve the problem. If you are concerned about it not being smooth enough, add a little water to the cornstarch in a separate bowl, and whisk into a smooth slurry. Then add that to the rest of the sauce ingredients. We found the sauce amount to be sparing, not generous, so if you want a bit extra consider upping all the amounts by 1/4 to 1/3.

the tomato paste adds a nice color and consistency, but it does add some chicken wings sort of flavor

Heat up the frying oil in a large wok, skillet, or pot. If you are lucky enough to have a real fryer go for it. Or if you do a lot of frying and are ready to deal with a lot of frying oil, you could use a large amount of it and fry the nuggets completely immersed. If you are like us and fry rarely, just add an inch or so of peanut oil to the bottom of a pan and heat on high. If you have a wok you can go really high and, as the recipe suggests, get the oil smoking slightly before putting the nuggets in. I wanted to spare our rather thin frying pan so I didn’t let it go quite that far. I strongly suggest you use something without a non-stick finish to do this. Non-stick pans do not like to get this hot, and it can damage the finish and potentially release toxic chemicals from the non-stick compounds into the air. (No need to panic if that’s all you have, people have gotten away with using non-stick for everything for years, but as a general rule I’d try to avoid overheating them.)

heat up some frying oil (notice the neat patterns!)

J: As the oil is heating up, start coating the chicken pieces in cornstarch.  Add a generous amount of cornstarch to a bowl and in small batches, start coating the chicken thoroughly in the cornstarch.  Don’t do too many too far in advance, or the chicken will start absorbing the cornstarch and drying out a little bit, and while that won’t kill your dish, it’s not really optimal.  When you’re ready to toss a batch into the frying oil, shake off all the excess cornstarch first, just to try and minimize the amount of cornstarch that gets let off in the oil and clouds it up.

drop a few in at a time

E: Set the chicken pieces lightly into the oil a few at a time (we did about 3 to 4 at a time, and had about 3 sets in at a time, so you can see in the picture above we have two about ready to come out while others still need more cooking). Cook for several minutes a side, or until they become golden. You’ll have to adjust the timing for the heat of your oil, but when the chicken pieces have a nice golden brown color they are done. Be careful when you flip them because some steam will sometimes shoot up.

Remove finished nuggets to a paper towel which will soak up some of the excess oil. When all the nuggets are done, pour out much of the oil, leaving about a tablespoon (or, remove it all and add fresh oil, ours was very cloudy because we’d used so little oil to start with, so we used about 50/50 old oil and fresh oil). Return to medium heat.

cook briefly in oil

Add in the garlic, ginger, and dried red pepper (or, in our case, red chili flakes) and cook for a minute or two until aromatic. Pour in the sauce, and cook until it thickens and coats all the chicken pieces. We found the sauce just barely went far enough, and we had to do a lot of stirring to get all of the pieces fully coated.

the sauce here is fully thickened

Serve with broccoli and rice for a classic dish. Add some sesame seeds too, for a garnish (we forgot to do that below, excuse us).

glossy and delicious, I give it a big thumbs up



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