Okay, this one’s not food related, but I think it’s really fun.
One of my favorite genres of literature is science fiction. There is a special place in my heart for the 1950’s Sci-Fi writing (commonly referred to as the Golden Age of Science Fiction) and the artwork that goes along with it. Both the writing and the artwork were based on science, but at that time, we knew so little about space travel, a lot of imagination had to be thrown in. It ended up being a wonderful, if not campy at times, blend of easy and entertaining reading. The fondness for this style of Sci-Fi has stuck with me since I read my first Asimov book (The Naked Sun, if I remember correctly). In fact, I’m only 1 of 2 people that I know that actually enjoyed the movie Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. The terrible acting and bad CG just made it that much more enjoyable because it fit in with my notion of the pulp Sci-Fi that the story comes from.
So, you can imagine that I was giddy as a school girl when I found the Pulp-O-Mizer! It allows you to create your own cover of a Sci-Fi pulp rag. So I naturally had to make my own.
I was watching some of the foodie TED talks (Technology, Entertainment, Design) because I love to geek out like that. One of them was by Dr. Nathan Myhrvold. He was promoting his and his co-authors new cookbook called Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking. It emphasizes the science behind all of cooking with a special emphasis on the field of molecular gastronomy. I highly recommend checking out the talk if you are even slightly interested in the how and why of cooking. It is a five volume set of books that contain over 2400 pages, plus a waterproof companion volume with the 1500 recipes collected for easy kitchen use.
One of the things that they do in the cookbook are cut-away photos of cooking in progress. These pictures are amazing, but not the easiest to capture. Dr. Myhrvold said their philosophy was that it only had to look good for 1/1000th of a second. And they succeeded! Being a nerd, one of my favorite things is that they have differential equations in the book describing the physics behind cooking, one example is Fourier’s Law of Heat Conduction (an equation that describes how efficiently heat/energy is moved along in a certain substance). Along with all of these, what really got me was their philosophy of wanting to make a cookbook that they wished they had while they were learning to cook. Of course all of this greatness comes at a price of $450 plus S&H. But what do you expect from a man who was a chief technology officer for Microsoft, a World Champion of Barbecue, Chief Gastronomic Officer for the Zagat Survey, and has formal training in mathematics, geophysics, space physics, mathematical economics, and theoretical physics. Oh yeah, he also worked with Stephen Hawking.
This has absolutely nothing to do with food but it’s so cool that I can’t pass it up. It’s a picture of a dust devil on Mars. Let me say that again. A picture. Of a dust devil. On Mars.
Check out a more in depth article at Bad Astronomy. It’s worth the quick read.
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.
- 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
- 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.
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: