Home > history, recipes, science, supper > Who is General Tso anyway?

Who is General Tso anyway?

The short answer is “I dunno.”  This is because the origin of the actual dish is lost in the murkiness of the 20th Century.  Assuming, like most claims that it is directly connected with General Zuo Zongtang (anglicized as Tso Tsung-t’ang) is pretty much a falsehood.  No one (at least according to a quick Google search) in China makes this dish.  Some come kind of close, but they do not have a sweet aspect to them.  I think it is telling that in General Tso’s hometown of Xiangyin, in the Hunan Provence, they are unfamiliar with the dish.  What does have the ring of truth to it is the origin story with Chef Peng Jia.  He was a chef that fled to Taiwan at the end of the Chinese civil war.  In 1973 he moved to New York and opened a Hunan cuisine restaurant there.  He started off cooking traditional recipes and then began modifying them to suit the tastes of everyone who was not familiar with the flavor profile.  Which at the time was pretty much everyone since his was one of the first Hunan restaurants in the country.  There is even a claim that Henry Kissinger was a fan of this dish and had it regularly when he was in New York.  The long answer summarized is that it is an Americanized version of a Hunan dish which is, at best, named after a Qing dynasty general and civil servant.

Since the time of is mysterious origins it has become a staple of Hunan-style Chinese restaurants everywhere.  It is a dish that is so popular and simple enough that I use it to judge the quality of whatever Chinese restaurant that I’m in.  (I do the same thing with Reubens).  I finally took the time to scour through the internet and find a recipe that sounded like it had potential.  Being an Americanized dish, my Chinese cookbook resources were never any help.  I finally found one that sounded good and only called for ingredients that I had on hand.  (Seriously, how many people have potato flour in their cupboards?).

This recipe is from Siam Oriental Restaurant (that’s all the info the generic site gave me).  My notes on the ingredients are in parentheses.

Ingredients (Sauce):

  • 1/2 C Cornstarch
  • 1/4 C Water
  • 1 1/2 tsp Garlic, minced (I used 3 1/2 tsp)
  • 1 1/2 tsp Ginger, minced (I used a thumb-sized piece)
  • 3/4 C Sugar
  • 1/2 C Soy Sauce
  • 1/4 C White Vinegar
  • 1/4 C White Wine
  • 1 1/2 C Chicken Broth, hot

Ingredients (Meat):

  • 3 lbs Chicken, deboned and cut into large chunks (can use either light or dark meat)
  • 1/4 C Soy Sauce
  • 1 tsp Pepper
  • 1 Egg
  • 1 C Cornstarch
  • Veggie Oil for deep-frying
  • 2 C Green Onions (1 bunch ~ 1/2 C)
  • 16 small dried Hot Peppers (I used 6 and very coarsely chopped them)

Mix the half cup of cornstarch with the water.  Add the garlic, ginger, sugar, half cup of soy sauce, vinegar, wine, and chicken broth.  Stir until the sugar dissolves and refrigerate until needed.  Next, in a separate bowl mix the chicken, quarter cup of soy sauce, and pepper.  Stir in the egg.  Add the cup of cornstarch and mix until the pieces are coated evenly.  Add a cup of veggie oil to help separate the pieces.  Deep fry the chicken in batches at 350 F degrees until crispy.  Drain on some paper towels.  Place a small amount of oil in a large skillet and heat until the pan is hot.  Add the onions and peppers and stir-fry briefly.  Stir the sauce and add to the skillet.  Place the chicken in the sauce and cook until the sauce thickens.  Serve with rice.

I had clumping issues when I mixed the cornstarch in with the chicken.  A better option may be to spread out the chicken on a baking sheet and dust it that way or just to simply grab each piece separately and bread it by itself.  On the whole, a decent recipe, but I think the next time I do this I’ll follow one of the other recipes that I found.  It just seemed like the flavor could have some more depth to it.

I forgot to take pictures while I was cooking, so all I have is one shot of the leftovers.

An interesting side note is the cornstarch and water slurry that is made in the first step is a non-Newtonian fluid.  More specifically, it is one type of non-Newtonian fluid called a dilatant.  Normal fluids have a constant coefficient of viscosity (or a constant rate at how the liquid wants to flow).  For example, water has a low viscosity which means it wants to flow easily while honey has a high viscosity and is very sluggish while moving.  In a dilatant the more stress you put on it, the more viscous it becomes.  So in plain english  this means that the cornstarch slurry will flow on its own if not agitated.  But if you try and stir it vigorously, it becomes “thicker” and harder to stir.  Another way of looking at it is that it starts to act more like a solid instead of a liquid.  For a very cool demonstration I defer to Adam and Jamie of MythBusters fame:

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