Sometimes it’s lovely to have someone else do the cooking. Christian is the resident chef at our little Alter/Burton compound. I am just the sous chef. He frequently cooks when he gets home from work, and sometimes he’ll spend most of Sunday afternoon in the kitchen. Asian is his specialty. Recently I pointed out a non-recipe to him that I thought he’d like—just a description of put a little of this in the pan and then a little of that, stir, etc. His response was “I need more structure than that. I’m going to make General Tso’s chicken.”
I’d seen references to this in Sam Sifton’s New York Times column but didn’t know what it is, so his remark sent me to the Internet. Basically it’s chicken thigh meat sliced or cut into pieces. deep-fried, and serve with a sweet/spicy sauce. But the story behind it intrigued me. General Tso (the name can be spelled a hundred different ways) was a statesman and military leader in the Qing dynasty (1644 – 1912). But there is no recorded connection between the general and the dish, and most people in the Hunan province, including Tso’s descendants, deny any knowledge of it.
Apparently, it does derive from Hunanese cooking, but the version we know in this country is much sweeter. Again, there are countless stories of its origin, several relating to one Chinese chef or another who came to America to open a restaurant. The linguistic peculiarities of the Chinese language, especially homonyms, may also account for the name. But the most colorful story I read is that some think the sliced and diced chicken mimics the treatment the general gave to his enemies in battle.
There are also a hundred ways to make this dish—I exaggerate only a bit. If you’re still hungry for it after the slice and dice story, here’s Christian’s recipe, slightly edited.
General Tso’s Chicken
1 lb. chicken thighs, meat cut from bone into one-inch chunks
¼ c. cornstarch
Vegetable oil for frying
1 Tbsp. minced fresh ginger
½ tsp. red pepper flakes
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 Tbsp. rice vinegar
3 Tbsp. soy sauce
2 tsp. hoisin sauce
¼ c. water
3 Tbsp. sugar
1 Tbsp. cornstarch
Toss chicken with corn starch and set aside.
Mix rice vinegar, soy sauce, hoisin sauce, water, sugar, and an additional Tbsp. of cornstarch in a small bowl. Set aside.
Fry chicken pieces in oil until crisp, tent on a plate, and set aside.
Discard oil in skillet, reserving one Tbsp. Add chili flakes, ginger, and garlic, and sauté until fragrant.
Return chicken to the skillet and add the sauce, stirring until it is slightly thickened.
I think knowing my taste Christian went a little light on the red pepper flakes, but the final dish was so good! He served it with lettuce wraps for which he used ground turkey because no ground chicken was available.