You must have eaten or at least know about the famous General Tso’s Chicken if you stay in America.
In contrast, I do not even know it exists until lately even though I am a Chinese who live in Asia.
It is a big surprise to me. I am dumbfounded that this popular Chinese dish is never heard off in Malaysia.
So I contact my siblings in Hong Kong, who are equally baffled what is chicken to do with the general in the Qing dynasty.
We are curious to find out more about this cuisine, and what is the ancient general got to do with this enigmatic Chinese-American cuisine yet with a ubiquitous presence in the United States.
I spent the whole last week testing the General Tso’s Chicken recipes, and absorb as much information I can find on the net.
Finally, the information and test result of various recipes are now ready to share with you.
Please read on to find out.
In search of the best General Tso’s chicken
Through my research, I realize that there is no consensus about the origins of General Tso’s chicken, neither there is a standard method of preparing the dish.
If General Tso’s is still alive, he must feel very upset over the how the people interpret his original recipe. He will disapprove all the modern version of the chicken dishes call General Tso’s chicken.
Since it is futile to claim which General Tso’s chicken is authentic, I would focus on formulating the best recipe, in my opinion.
My research brought me through the history and folklores of General Tso. After two weeks of studying in both English and Chinese recipe and carry out a gauntlet of tests, I finally found one formula that can produce the flavor, color, and texture I want.
3 important characteristics that make General Tso’s Chicken a great dish
All the different versions of General Tso’s Chicken share a set of common characteristics.
- The chicken is marinated with soy sauce, eggs and some other ingredients. The egg can be either whole or the egg white alone, and the sauce can be either dark or light soy sauce.
- The chicken is deep-fried, dredged in either a batter or a dry mix of flour, baking powder and salt.
- The deep-fried chicken chunks are coated with a special sweet and sour sauce with dry red chili.
This formula provides constant pulls between sweet and sour, and augmented with the umami of soy, with crackling coating even after soaking up the sauce and bursting with the spicy flavor of dry red chili. This formula works because these are all things Americans love.
Test result on four great recipes (and they are all different)
The recipes of General Tso’s Chicken looks simple, but a small tweak of the cooking method will cause a huge difference in the result. The fragile balance of the ingredients means changing the amount of the seasonings or using a substitution can drastically alter the taste.
I use Google to search and shortlist four famous General Tso’s chicken recipes. These recipes are written by a native American’s, a Chinese who resides in America, one from Taiwan and another one from a documentary film who explore the origins of General Tso.
All the recipes turned out differently. Below are the results,
1. Recipe by Kenji Lopez, Serious Eats
Kenji Lopez is the author of the book The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science.
His recipe is contemporary and well researched. His book and food blog is the primary source whenever I want to look for recipes and culinary techniques.
What is so special about this recipe
The highlight of this recipe is how Kenji deep-fried the chicken.Kenji has tested some methods to achieve one thing- to get the chicken crispy even after it is coated with the sauce. He also wants to be crispy enough but not to the extend like eating biscuits! Moreover, he wants the duration of crispiness beyond for the few moments just after cooking.
Kenji has tested multiple methods to achieve one thing- to get the chicken crispy even after it is coated with the sauce. He also wants the chicken to be crispy enough but not to the extend like eating biscuits! Moreover, he wants to extend the duration of crispiness beyond the few minutes just after cooking.
He revealed the method of frying and it works. If you follow his recipe strictly, you will get the result as he described. It is a brilliant interplay of various types of flour with the baking soda and baking powder. Certainly, he has a solid understanding of food chemistry behind the scene.
The chicken is moist inside and crispy and crunchy on the outside even after deep-frying for half an hour. (Bear in mind that the chicken is coated with sauce all over!)
The flavor is intense, and you can finish a bowl of steamed rice merely mix with the excess of the sauce on the plate.
2. Recipe by CiCi Li From Food Paradise
CiCi Li is the host of CiCi’s “Food Paradise” on NTD Television. The popular food program explores Asian and Western culinary cultures for the Chinese-language audience, including dining recommendations and food trends.
What is so special about this recipe
The main difference of this recipe from Kenji’s version is the coating.
She coated the chicken with a batter mainly consist of egg, baking soda, and cornflour.
Double deep-frying is the key in this recipe, which consists of 4 minutes of deep-frying at 350 °C, followed by 1 minute at 375 °C.
The batter consists of sweet potato starch and an egg.
As expected, the flavor and texture are very different from Kenji’s version. The color is lighter as she use light soy sauce for this recipe. The coating is gooier due to the higher content of cornflour in the sauce. It is crispy and light but turns soft after fifteen minutes.
The flavor is less intense as Kenji’s version and is closer to another typical Chinese dish, sweet and sour chicken 咕噜肉. Overall, it is tasty and perfect to eat with plain rice.
3. Recipe by the documentary film The Search for General Tso
This recipe is the provided by the crew of the documentary film The Search of General Tso.
The film is a documentary about the origin of General Tso’s Chicken. I believe they have researched the origin of the recipe thoroughly. This recipe should be as close as possible to the original version by chef Peng, the creator of General Tso’s Chicken.
What is so special about this recipe
There is tomato paste in the formula, and hence the taste is significantly different from the two recipes tested previously. Besides that, there is no oyster sauce, scallion in the recipe and with minimum light soy sauce. You can taste the distinct tomato flavor of this recipe.
The coating is not as crispy as the previous recipes since there is no baking soda in the formula.
Overall, it tasted more like fried chicken coated with tomato ketchup and spiced up with dry red chili. While the taste is good, it may have less ‘wow’ factor as compared to Kenji’s version.
This recipe includes blanched broccoli as garnish. This presentation is typical for the General Tso’s chicken in many American Chinese restaurants.
4. Recipe by Kian Lam Kho (Posted by Meggan)
Cookbook author Kian Lam Kho develop this recipe and posted by food blogger Meggan.
Mr. Kian is a Chinese native and culinary expert. I am looking forward to trying out his fabulous recipe.
What is so special about this recipe
This recipe uses black vinegar instead of white vinegar in other recipes that I have tested. Mr. Kian also includes Hoisin sauce in the recipe, which I am eager to know how it affects the taste of the dish.
The taste is way different from the first three recipes. The black vinegar, the abundant use of Shaoxing wine, the Hoisin sauce, and sesame seeds create a new set of flavor. It tastes great except I prefer it to be less gooey by reducing the amount of cornflour.
My ultimate General Tso's Chicken recipe (4.07 mins)
What I learned from the great mind of the chefs
After a whirlwind of tests on four masterful recipes, I can conclude that there is no standard method to cook General Tso's chicken.
With this concept in mind, I am ready to formulate my go-to General Tso's Chicken recipe.
Here is a list of important points which are the backbone of developing my recipe.
- Flour. I use equal portion of wheat flour and corn flour for the coating of the chicken. The result is crispy and lasting. I find that the difference between potato flour and cornflour is minimal. Corn flour is widely available in most of the households.
- Baking powder and baking soda. I use baking powder instead of baking soda since I have it in my kitchen. The chicken deep-fried with the flour coating with baking powder is significantly lighter than those without.
- Dry coating versus batter. Dry coating is my choice. The crispiness last longer with the dry coating.
- Tomato paste. A small amount of tomato paste is useful to improve the color of the chicken. However, too much tomato paste will turn the chicken to become a ketchup chicken, which is not what I wish it turns out to be.
- Dark soy sauce. Dark soy sauce has a deeper soy flavor but results in an appearance which is too dark. My recipes will combine both dark and light soy sauce in equal portion.
- Scallion. Scallion has a unique Asian flavor, and act as the garnish. I will include scallion in the recipe.
- Corn flour slurry. A small amount of cornflour is useful to thicken the sauce. Since both oyster sauce and dark soy sauce are thick, too much corn flour will turn the sauce into a gooey mass. I only use a small amount to avoid this from happening.
- Skin on. Chicken skin is crispy. I cut off some but leave most of the skin on.
The ultimate General Tso's Chicken recipe
- 1 egg white
- 1 tablespoons (15ml) of dark soy sauce
- 1 tablespoons (15ml) of light soy sauce
- 4 tablespoons (60ml) of Shaoxing wine
- ¼ teaspoon baking powder
- 3 tablespoons of corn starch
- 500g of boneless, skin-on chicken thighs, cut into 4cm chunks
- ½ cup of wheat flour
- ½ cup of cornstarch
- ½ teaspoon of baking powder
- ½ teaspoon of salt
- 1½ tablespoons of dark soy sauce
- 1½ tablespoons of light soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons (30ml) Shaoxing wine
- 2 tablespoons (30ml) of rice vinegar
- 3 tablespoons (45ml) of water
- 4 tablespoons (60g) of sugar
- 1 teaspoon of sesame seed oil
- 2 teaspoons (10g) of tomato paste
- 1 tablespoon of corn starch
- 2 tablespoons (30ml) of vegetable oil
- 2 teaspoons minced garlic
- 2 teaspoons minced ginger
- 2 teaspoons minced scallion
- 8 small dried red chili
- Vegetable oil
- Score the skinless side of the chicken in a crosshatch pattern. Be careful not to cut through the meat.
- Cut the chicken into 4 cm chunks, leaving some skin on it for extra crispiness.
- Marinate with the ingredients in (A) for at least half an hour.
- Mix the ingredients (B) together to become the dry flour mix.
- Drain off any excess liquid from the chicken. Dredge the chicken chunks into the flour mix.
- Pour at least 1.5-inch layer of vegetable oil into a heavy-bottomed pot or wok and heat the oil up to up 360 °F (180 °C).
- Deep fried the chicken until cooked through and turns golden brown about 5 minutes. Stir occasionally with chopsticks to avoid the chicken pieces sticking together.
- Drain the chicken pieces on a plate lined with a paper towel.
- Mix the ingredients D together.
- Saute the garlic, ginger, dry red chili and scallion in D with vegetable oil in a pan. Pour the ingredients D to the pan and cook until the mixture become translucent. Turn of the heat.
- Add the deep-fried chicken to the sauce. Coat the chicken with the sauce thoroughly. Serve.
Who is General Tso?
It is peculiar that how on earth an American dish is named after a Chinese general who lives in the eighteenth century. Before we reveal how the name of an ancient general is associated with a modern American cuisine, you may be curious about who he is.
General Tso is called Zuo Zongtang (左宗棠) in Chinese. There isn't any exact pronunciation of his surname 左 in English, and the closest proximation Tso is eventually accepted.
Remember the epic biography film The Last Emperor starring John Lone? This film is the documentary about the final era of the Qing dynasty and is the best way to learn more about the last dynasty of China. Although this film does not mention about General Tso, there is another less known but mouthwateringly entertaining film called The Search For General Tso depicts the origin of General Tso’s chicken.
Tso is the famous general during the Qing Dynasty (清朝). His is the native from the Hunan province. After obtained a degree from the imperial examination, he joined the Qing military and eventually become the Provincial Governor of Zhejiang Province.
Created by a Taiwanese chef
The name General GTso's Chicken was created by Chef C.K. Peng (彭长贵) from Taiwan during the 1950’s. Chef Peng is a native of Hunan Province, where General Tso’s was born. Chef Peng moved to Taiwan after the chaotic aftermath of the China civil war.
Fast forward to the 1970’s, Chef Peng went to New York to set up his restaurant and served the typical Hunan cuisine which was unknown by the Americans. He improvised the authentic Hunanese chicken and highlighted it as the house specialty of his restaurant. This light battered chicken thigh coated with sweet and sour sauce was an instant hit and eventually become the epitome of Hunanese cuisine outside the mainland China.
- The Food Lab: Bringing Home General Tso's Chicken
- The Best General Tso's Chicken Recipe
- The Definitive General Tso's Chicken Page
- 湘菜厨神彭长贵 96岁重现左宗棠鸡
- What Is the History Behind General Tso's Chicken? | Huffington Post
- The Strange Tale of General Tso's Chicken: NPR
- The Search For General Tso
- The famous General Tso's Chicken recipe
- Authentic General Tso's Chicken Recipe | Culinary Hill
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