IF you have never heard of General Tso’s chicken, chances are you have never lived in the US, where it is a hugely popular dish at any Chinese restaurant.
Along with chop suey, moo goo gai pan and the fortune cookie, General Tso’s chicken is a US invention created by Taiwanese chefs in the 1970s to appeal to American tastebuds.
In fact, this dish has become so famous that filmmakers have produced a documentary film The Search for General Tso to explore theories of who General Tso was.
They had found that outside of the US, no one had heard of the eponymous dish or were familiar with the general it was named after.
But they had located the actual Qing dynasty general, Tso Tsung-t’ang (Zuo Zongtang), who was a statesman and military leader born in the Hunan Province of China.
However, he probably had never tasted the dish that bore his name.
The first time I had General Tso’s chicken was more than 30 years ago when I was studying in Texas.
At that time, the dish was only available on the chef’s speciality menu at a few upscale Chinese restaurants in the financial district of downtown Austin.
It has since become a ubiquitous dish that Americans order for Chinese takeouts.
I remember the dish to be slightly sweet with a hint of orange and sesame seeds.
It merged the flavours of orange chicken, sesame chicken and sweet and sour chicken, the stereotypical Chinese dishes commonly served in the US.
However, I must confess it was one of my favourite dishes when eating out.
Cooking it for this column brought back memories of this expensive item on the special menu, which I had to save money to splurge on once in a while.
The key seasoning for General Tso’s chicken is hoisin sauce.
Despite its name, hoisin sauce does not contain seafood.
The dominant ingredient in hoisin sauce is fermented soybean.
It is similar to the sauce that we usually pour over chee cheong fun and yong tau foo, but in its undiluted form.
It is also commonly served as a dipping sauce for Peking duck.
In this recipe, it brings fragrance and colour as well as balances the sweet and savoury notes in the final gravy.
Give this recipe a try and taste what the buzz about this dish is all about.
Thereafter, you can also experiment with the more recent evolution of the dish, which substitutes the chicken with shrimp or tofu.
Serve it with blanched broccoli and you’ve got Americana on your plate, just the dish for celebrating the 4th of July, which is Independence Day in the US.
General Tso’s chicken
500g boneless chicken meat, cut into bite-size cubes
2 tbsp Shaoxing wine
½ tsp white pepper
½ tsp salt
½ cup corn starch
4 cups cooking oil
6 dried red chillies
2 strips orange peel
3cm ginger, sliced
5 cloves garlic, sliced
10 bulbs shallots, quartered
2 stalks scallion, cut into 3cm lengths
1 tbsp toasted sesame seeds
1 tbsp cornstarch
2 tbsp brown sugar
3 tbsp light soy sauce
1 tbsp Shaoxing wine
1 tbsp rice vinegar or apple cider vinegar
½ tsp sesame oil
2 tbsp chicken stock concentrate
1 tbsp hoisin sauce
1 tsp dark soy sauce
½ cup water juice of ½ orange
1. Marinate chicken meat with Shaoxing wine, pepper and salt for 15 minutes.
2. Dip the chicken into egg and dredge in cornstarch. Heat the oil in a wok and deep fry the chicken until they turn light golden. Drain off excess oil from fried chicken in a strainer lined with paper towels.
3. Reserve 2 tablespoons of oil in the wok. Temper the dried chillies and orange peel in the wok until fragrant. Add ginger, shallots and garlic, sauté until lightly wilted.
4. Combine sauce ingredients in a small bowl and pour the sauce into the wok. When the sauce has come to a boil and thickens, stir in the chicken to combine with the sauce.
5. Toss in scallions, stir and dish out. Sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds and serve immediately.