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Friday, June 06, 2014

General Tso's Chicken

General Tso's Chicken 1

In May, while waiting for an oil change, I offered my seat to the little old Asian lady coming towards me with a walker. She opted to sit next to me instead. She remarked about the weather (98 degrees that day, 100+ for the next three days) and mentioned that she'd take the heat over the tornadoes she had growing up in the Midwest.

Which led to fascinating stories about her father opening a Chinese restaurant in 1920 (!!!) in Omaha, Nebraska. All the decor was imported from China, which made eating at the restaurant quite an adventure for many people back then. Her family was one of only two Chinese families in town.

She came out to Los Angeles before WWII to work for the Air Force (which was still part of the Army at the time and didn't become a separate service until 1947). She talked about encountering racism when she tried to rent an apartment as a newlywed. A landlord said he decided to rent to his nephew instead and another landlord said the apartments were all taken but if there was an opening he'd call her. She credited Miiko Taka's 1957 appearance on the Ed Sullivan show to promote "Sayonara" that changed one landlord's mind about renting to Asians. Immediately after the show, she got a call saying the spoken-for tenant decided not to take the apartment and it was available after all.

And then my car was ready and I had to go.

I looked up the restaurant she said her dad owned since she said it's still around. King Fong Cafe in Omaha, Nebraska. She said the food served by the current family members isn't as good. And while I have my doubts about Chinese food in Nebraska, I think it's amazing that a Chinese restaurant in Omaha has been going strong for nearly a century!

The restaurant is mentioned in a New York Times T Magazine article, "Wanderlust -- A Road Trip Through Alexander Payne's Nebraska" by Kurt Andersen in which the director became a co-owner of the restaurant.

"A few years ago, in an act of historic preservation, he and an old friend became landlords of Omaha’s King Fong Cafe, a dim, ornately Chinese restaurant unchanged from when it opened in 1920," Andersen wrote.

Which got me thinking about Chinese American food. Chinese Beef and Broccoli, Sweet and Sour Chicken, Chow Mein, Chop Suey, and General Tso's Chicken. The quick explanation is that early Chinese immigrants adapted traditional Chinese recipes with what American ingredients they had on hand, often adjusting to American tastebuds. But delve into the history of each dish, and there usually is some historical basis.

Take for instance General Tso's Chicken. According to Wikipedia, this deep-fried chicken and broccoli stir-fry was named after Qing Dynasty General Tso Tsung-Tang, but the dish can not be found in his hometown in Hunan province in China, nor have his descendents even heard of it. Cookbook author Fuchsia Dunlop asserts that the dish was invented by Peng Chang-kuei, also known as Peng Jia, who apprenticed under a famous Chinese chef, served as the Nationalist government's banquet chef, fled to Taiwan with Chiang Kai-Shek's forces, and then moved to New York in 1973, where he invented new dishes and modified traditional ones.

But New York's Shun Lee Palaces (East and West) claims that their chef, T.T. Wang, invented General Tso's Chicken in 1972, or at the very least, introduced the crispy-fried version.

Which comes back to my point, that Chinese American food was the result of taking traditional Chinese recipes and adapting them to American ingredients and tastebuds. And while goopy Chinese American fast food gets a bad rap, prepared well, Chinese American cuisine has its place in American culinary repertoire.

My recipe for General Tso's Chicken is a bit laborious, but oh so worth it. It took about an hour, so not something I'd do for a quick dinner after work. There are a lot of steps, but they make a difference in the final result -- the crunchy battered fried chicken, the parboiled crisp-tender broccoli, the slightly spicy sweet sauce. All the elements come together so well to make this dish a Chinese American restaurant favorite. So much so that the dish has even inspired a documentary about Chinese food in America, "The Search for General Tso."

General Tso's Chicken 2

General Tso's Chicken

For about 4 to 6 servings, you'll need:

For the marinade:
2 chicken thighs or breasts, deboned and cut into 1- to 2-inch size pieces
2 tsp salt
2 tsp soy sauce
2 tsp Chinese Xiao Hsing Rice Wine or rice vinegar

1 head broccoli, cut into 2- to 3-inch sized pieces and blanched

For the sauce:
1/3 cup water
1 tblsp ketchup
1 tblsp soy sauce
2 tsp sugar
2 tsp rice vinegar
2 tsp sesame oil
2 tsp Chinese hoisin sauce
2 tsp chili sauce
2 tsp corn starch

For frying:
Oil for deep-frying
1 cup Cornstarch

For cooking:
2 cloves garlic, minced
Dozen dried chili pods
1 tblsp sesame seeds

Cut the chicken into 1- to 2-inch bite-sized pieces. Marinate with 2 tsp salt, 2 tsp soy sauce, and 2 tsp Chinese rice wine. Mix thoroughly and set aside.

General Tso's Chicken 3

Set a large pot of water to boil.

General Tso's Chicken 4

Meanwhile, make the stir-fry sauce by putting 1/3 cup water, 1 tblsp ketchup, 1 tblsp soy sauce, 2 tsp sugar, 2 tsp rice vinegar, 2 tsp sesame oil, 2 tsp hoisin sauce, 2 tsp chili sauce, and 2 tsp corn starch in a small sauce pan on medium-low heat. Stir and let the mixture thicken.

General Tso's Chicken 5

When the pot of water boils, add the broccoli and let it blanch for a few minutes until crisp-tender. Dump the broccoli into a bowl of water with ice cubes to stop the cooking. Or at least drain into a colander and rinse with cold water. Set aside in a colander to drain.

General Tso's Chicken 6

After a few minutes, the stir-fry sauce should have thickened. Turn off the heat and set aside.

General Tso's Chicken 7

Fill a wok or fry pan with oil and turn the heat to medium-high. Put about 1 cup of cornstarch into a bowl. Dredge the chicken pieces into the cornstarch, shaking off the excess.

General Tso's Chicken 8

Deep fry the whole batch and let the chicken drain. Set aside when done.

General Tso's Chicken 9

Ready to put all the elements together? In a clean wok or fry pan on medium-high heat, drizzle a bit of oil and add 2 cloves minced garlic and about a dozen dried chili pods.

General Tso's Chicken 10

When the chilies have softened and the garlic starts crisping, add the whole pan of stir-fry sauce. Toss it a little to loosen the sauce again.

General Tso's Chicken 11

Then add the fried chicken pieces and toss again until evenly coated.

General Tso's Chicken 12

Add the blanched broccoli and toss again.

General Tso's Chicken 13

Looking good!

General Tso's Chicken 14

One last touch. Sprinkle about a tblsp of sesame seeds.

General Tso's Chicken 15

Toss again.

General Tso's Chicken 16

Crunchy chicken, crisp-tender broccoli, and slightly spicy, slightly sweet sauce.

General Tso's Chicken 17

Way better than any restaurant's version.

General Tso's Chicken 18

Eat it right away or the chicken will get soggy.

General Tso's Chicken 19

Serve with rice.

General Tso's Chicken 20


Other fried chicken recipes:
Chicken Fingers
Chicken Karaage (Japanese Fried Chicken)
Southern Fried Chicken with Cream Gravy and Sour Cream Mashed Potatoes
Taiwanese Popcorn Chicken

1 year ago today,
2 years ago today,
3 years ago today,
4 years ago today, Chinese Celery and Chicken Stir-Fry.
5 years ago today, pink roses.
6 years ago today, Chinese Mango Chicken Stir-Fry.
7 years ago today, Kabuki Japanese Restaurant - Rancho Cucamonga.


  1. Good gracious that's a lot of work! But the results look extra tasty.

    I loved your little old lady encounter. Amazing what stories and history live all around us, chance encounters giving us windows of enlightenment and perspective.

  2. Oddlyme,
    It was! But sometimes, it's worth it. Although, I'm perfectly fine ordering sweet and sour or orange chicken around here since it's authentic and cheap.

    I wish I had asked her name, but it seemed creepy. I really enjoyed talking to her though.

  3. Wow! That sounds delightfully tasty! I cant wait to try this!

    It's amazing how a interesting a short conversation with a random stranger can be.

  4. Biki,
    On a recent visit, I was subjected to a diatribe about everything that's wrong with our current president and society so that's why the conversation with the little old Chinese lady stood out! Sadly, the interesting conversations are few and far between.


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