You find it everywhere, on virtually every Chinese restaurant menu and behind just about every supermarket deli counter. It’s a staple of what Americans call Chinese food: General Tso’s Chicken.
Recently, I watched The Search for General Tso, a documentary that searches for the origins of this ubiquitous dish. From it, I learned that this concoction is about as Chinese as chop suey. While it was indeed created by Hunan chef C.K. Peng in Taipei, and while it carries the name of the famous Hunan general Zuo Zongtang, it has been so Americanized as to be nearly unrecognizable. It’s sweeter. It’s milder. It’s festooned with scallions and mixed with steamed broccoli.
Naturally, I took this as a challenge. I like the American version just fine, but would I like the original version better? Even factoring in my bias toward traditional ethnic food, the answer is an unmitigated “Yes!”
On balance, I find Chinese cuisine intimidating. There is usually a lot of prep-work and I’m not well-educated as to what many of the ingredients are. This recipe, though, has ingredients that are familiar and easy to find, and the recipe itself is easy if you break it into three basic steps: Cook the meat, make the sauce, mix.
See? Easy peasy.
The Original General Tso’s Chicken (a la C.K. Peng)
- A wok or small pot for deep-frying
- 1 egg
- 3 tablespoons soy sauce, divided (1 for the marinade, 2 for the sauce)
- 1 pound boneless chicken thighs, with skin or without (I prefer with)
- 1 1/4 cups corn starch (for dredging), plus 2 teaspoons (for sauce)
- Canola oil for deep-frying
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 2 tablespoons rice vinegar
- 1/2 cup chicken stock
- 2 teaspoons sesame oil
- A dash or two of fish sauce
- 1 tablespoon peanut oil
- 9–12 small chili peppers (sanaam or arbol chilies work well)
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 1/2 tablespoons fresh ginger, minced
- 1/2 teaspoon black sesame seeds
- Crack the egg into a medium-sized bowl and add 1 tablespoon soy sauce. Beat well.
- Chop the chicken into bite-sized pieces and add to the bowl. Mix to distribute the marinade, and let it sit for 10–15 minutes.
- Remove the chicken and dredge it in the corn starch.
- Heat the canola oil in the wok or pot. Let it get to 350–375°F. Keep the heat up during cooking.
- Cook the chicken in small batches. Let the coating get toasty brown, then remove to drain on a rack over paper towels.
- Save off the oil for future re-use and wipe out the wok.
Make the Sauce
- In a bowl, mix the 1 tablespoon soy sauce, tomato paste, rice vinegar, chicken stock, sesame oil, fish sauce, and 2 teaspoons of cornstarch. Mix well, breaking up any lumps of cornstarch.
- Add peanut oil to the wok and let it heat up.
- Break 3–4 of the chilies apart. Add the broken bits, seeds, and the remaining whole chilies to the oil and stir-fry quickly, about 10 seconds.
- Add the garlic and ginger and stir-fry for 15-20 seconds.
- Add the sauce mixture and stir. The cornstarch will thicken the sauce as it cooks.
- Add the chicken chunks to the wok and toss to distribute the sauce.
- Plate with a slotted spoon.
- Ladle extra sauce over the chicken as desired and sprinkle with black sesame seeds.
- American palates have demanded a sweeter, more colorful version of Chef Peng’s original. If you want to re-create what you find in your nearby restaurant, add some sugar or honey to the sauce, replace the black sesame seeds with some chopped scallions, and serve with/over steamed broccoli.
- This is a fairly versatile dish that can be changed by adding or substituting a few ingredients:
- Add the zest of an orange to the sauce for Orange Chicken.
- Remove the tomato paste from the sauce, and replace black sesame seeds with white sesame seeds for Sesame Chicken.
- Remove the tomato paste, add some sugar, and double the rice vinegar and soy sauce for Empress Chicken.