On the outside, it’s colorfully glazed and crisp on the edges. It glistens as the tangy, sweet and sticky sauce — laced with a touch of spicy heat — hugs every valley and peak of its crunchy coating. It’s warm, all-pleasing and on the menu of nearly every Chinese food restaurant around the United States. It’s General Tso’s Chicken. (Or General Gau’s, Tsao’s or Gao’s, depending on where you live.) But who was General Tso, and why are we eating his chicken?
Filmmaker, Ian Cheney, and producer and author, Jennifer 8. Lee, set out to learn about the man behind the dish and explore the phenomenon of Chinese-American food in their new documentary, The Search for General Tso. The real General Tso was a 19th century general in the Qing Dynasty in the Hunan province, so perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that his diet was more local goose casserole and original flavor beef hoof than his eponymous spicy chicken. In fact, he never even tried the chicken named for him; it wasn’t until 1949 that the unique sour-and-hot combination came to be.
Cooking Channel sat down with the Cheney and Lee to find out more about the saucy nuggets and the secrets for creating the authentic version of General Tso’s chicken.
What makes General Tso’s chicken in the United States different from General Tso’s chicken in China?
Ian Cheney: For the most part, it is not in China! But they do actually now serve a dish called General Tso’s chicken at the General Tso hotel in China, but inspired by America, hilariously. The man who invented it – Chef Peng – was from the Hunan province in China, but fled to Taiwan in 1949 and invented it there. That dish, which we did taste, is certainly much less sweet and crispy, because he leaves the skin on the boneless thighs that he uses, and no breading, just a light coating. It’s a little bit spicier and more tangy, with more ginger and a more savory flavor than the American versions.
Jennifer 8. Lee: And definitely no broccoli.
Recipes for General Tso’s chicken change from place to place. What are the staple ingredients are needed to keep it authentic?
Cheney: The color — I think people expect a certain reddish hue. And a sweetness to the sauce. Crispy, breaded nuggets of chicken with a tangy, savory sauce.
Lee: I think about 90% of dishes are served with broccoli. It’s rare to see it without that.
Why has General Tso’s Chicken become an American comfort food?
Cheney: I remember going to the Polynesian restaurants on the South Shore of Boston, and loving the tiki decorations and the purple umbrella that would come in the Shirley Temple, and ordering General Tso’s chicken. It was like having chicken nuggets that you could dip in sweet and sour sauce. And I’ve talked to a number of people who share the same affection for this little glimpse of another world and another culture. We thought it was exotic — so it’s actually hilariously ironic that these dishes are American.
How have American palates for Chinese food changed?
Lee: The most interesting line is from when Chinese food first started with chop suey, it was the classic Chinese-American dish. It was this combination of the foreign and the familiar: chicken, pork or beef, and then you would add vegetables like snow peas, water chestnuts and bean sprouts, which had texture, but very little flavor. So chop suey was a perfect gateway dish for the American palate, because there was this exotic feel and texture from the vegetables, but the familiarity of the meats. Then in 1972, when you have the arrivals of Hunan and Szechuan cooking, you get more spicy dishes and all kinds of crazy flavors, which now most Americans embrace.
How do you think Chinese food in America will change going forward?
Cheney: It will be interesting to see whether dishes from different regions gain traction outside of New York, in the same way that General Tso’s did. General Tso’s chicken was introduced in 1972 and it sort of fanned out across the country, and now we are starting to see different regions of China being introduced.
Lee: Like Xi’an Famous Foods in New York — it is much more Western Chinese food, more Middle-Eastern oriented. There’s a lot more lamb, a lot more bread and sandwiches with flatbreads. It’s common street food in China, so as more Chinese people come to the U.S., they want their version of ethnic street food.
What’s your best tip for keeping the traditions of Chinese cooking when preparing food at home?
Lee: Use real soy sauce – soy sauce made from soy beans. There’s a whole line in the world where there is soy sauce that is just like brown water, without soy.
How many versions of General Tso’s chicken did you try in the making of the film?
Cheney: It’s uncountable. Probably hundreds.
And your favorite out of them all?
Cheney: I really enjoyed eating the General Tso’s chicken at Leong’s Asian Diner in Springfield, MO, where Cashew Chicken was invented. And there is a place in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, called Brooklyn Wok Shop, that serves it with roasted broccoli.
Hungry? Check out our recipe for General Tso’s Chicken, or try the one adapted by the crew of the film (below). For more chicken, watch the trailer, and find it in a theater near you.
1 pound boneless chicken thighs (Chef Peng leaves the skin on — up to you!)
GMO-free canola oil, for deep-frying (General Tso didn’t eat GMOs, why should you?)
1 tablespoon peanut oil
1 1/4 cups cornstarch, plus 1 teaspoon (Fuchsia Dunlop uses potato flour, fun if you can find it!)
1 egg (General Tso likely preferred organic eggs)
2 tablespoons soy sauce, divided (You’ll use 1 tablespoon for the marinade, and 1 for the sauce)
Dozen dried whole red chiles (de rigueur!)
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
1 teaspoon sesame oil
Dash of sugar or teaspoon of honey (Chef Peng would not approve.)
Dash of chile paste or hot sauce (Spice it up as you see fit.)
1/4 cup chicken stock (Sequel: The Search for General Tso’s Chicken Stock?)
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tablespoon ginger, minced
Orange zest, plus orange slice for garnish (Only if you live in CA; then you’re making Orange Chicken)
Sesame seeds (This more or less turns it into Sesame Chicken.)
No scallions! Or some! Sliced on the bias. (Chef Peng serves his up sans scallions, but add if you like.)
Broccoli, steamed (Chef Peng would not approve, but classic in America.)
1. Crack the egg dramatically into a bowl and stir it up, ideally while filming the whole business in slow motion. If you can get someone to hit a crash cymbal while you crack the egg, that’s ideal but not absolutely necessary. Add 1T soy sauce and stir.
2. Cut the chicken into 1 inch chunks, and swirl ‘em around in the egg-soy marinade. Leave that be for long enough to make yourself a General Tso’s Cocktail: 1 1/2 ounces bourbon, 1/4 ounce Campari, 1/2 ounce sweet vermouth, 1/4 ounce ginger syrup, dash of Tabasco, sprig of broccoli.
3. Mix up the sauce in a separate bowl: 1 T soy, 1 T tomato paste, 1 T rice vinegar, 1/4 cup Chicken Stock, 1 tsp sesame oil, a bit of sugar if you like, 1 tsp corn starch. There’s room for adaptation here. Don’t be alarmed if it feels too thin and watery. Once you cook it, the starch will thicken things up and you’ll be in gooey Tso heaven.
4. Break a few of the chilis in half, discarding some seeds if you don’t like the spice, leave a few of the chilis intact.
5. Remove the chicken from its marinade, and toss it in a bowl with the corn starch, getting it all nice and coated.
6. Heat up the cooking oil in the wok, to around 350 ° or 375°.
7. Fry the chicken in batches, each batch about 4 minutes or so, get the nuggets nice and golden, then remove and drain on a wire rack over some paper towels. Be careful not to light any of this on fire.
8. Pour the oil off into another container (something that won’t melt…) and save for subsequent batches. Wipe out the wok with a paper towel.
9. Turn the heat back on and add your 1 T peanut oil and the chilis, quickly stir-frying them for 10 seconds or so — careful, they can burn easily. Add the garlic and ginger and stir fry for maybe 15-20 seconds, then add the sauce and stir it up for a minute or so.
10. Once the sauce is looking gooey, add the chicken and swirl it around to coat. You can also toss the chicken chunks up in the air, allowing ribbon of sauce to fly all over your kitchen. Point is: marry the sauce and the chicken.
11. Add any optional accouterments, and serve it up!