This dish has become one of the most popular North American Chinese restaurant items since it first appeared in the early 1970s.
The inspiration for this dish is Zuo Zongtang (1812-1885), a Qing dynasty military leader from China’s Hunan Province. General Tso, as he’s mostly known in the west, is celebrated for his military exploits as well as his contributions to advancements in agriculture and publishing.
After renowned chef Peng Chang-kuei, fled Hunan for Taiwan in the 1960s, he created a dish that would be representative of his homeland while honouring one of its most celebrated leaders. But Peng’s General Tso chicken was not known outside of Taiwan.
When visiting Peng’s restaurant, New York restaurateur T. T. Wang was so impressed with the dish that he decided to bring it back to America. It was added to the menu at his Manhattan restaurant, Shun Lee Palace, in 1972.
A renewed interest in Chinese cuisine
This was that shot in the arm that American-Chinese restaurants needed. And the arrival of General Tso’s chicken couldn’t have come at a better time.
President Richard Nixon had just made his historic visit to China. Back home, viewers witnessed the president sampling authentic Chinese cuisine with the Chinese premier. The visit greatly helped improve relations between the two superpowers. For the American people, the event sparked a new curiosity about Chinese culture and its food in particular.
America was ready to move on from the Chop Suey houses that were ubiquitous in the first part of the century. T. T. Wang’s success was infectious and it wasn’t long until Chinese restaurants across North America began offering their own versions of General Tso’s Chicken on their menus.
When chef Peng learned that his dish was such a huge sensation in the US, it wasn’t long before he moved to New York to set up his own restaurant to raving reviews.
General Tso’s chicken was a stir-fried masterpiece, sizzling hot both in flavor and temperature.Mimi Sheraton, New York Times
The documentary film, The Search for General Tso, sheds light on the evolution of American-Chinese cuisine. A big part of the success of the Chinese restaurant business is their ability to adapt to suit local tastes. Indeed, this business model has been applied across the globe as most nations have their own versions of Chinese food.
Because of this, there are several regional and name variations to General Tso’s chicken as well. It may also appear as General Tsao, General Gao, General Cho and General Tao on menus where you live. It can range from crispy and spicy at one restaurant to sweet mild and chewy at another. The saga has now come full circle as the dish is available in some parts of China, especially in cities where there are larger numbers of westerners.
With this easy to prepare recipe, I am going for tender pan-fried chicken smothered in a sauce of well-balanced Hunan flavours. You may just prefer it over take-out.
General Tso’s Chicken
For the Chicken
- 1 lb boneless skinless chicken thighs cut into approximately 1-inch cubes
- ¼ cup flour
- ½ tsp salt
- ½ tsp white pepper
- ½ cup peanut oil
- 1 scallion green onion, sliced
For the Sauce
- 1 tbsp fresh ginger finely chopped
- 1 tbsp fresh garlic finely chopped (one large clove)
- 5 tbsp brown sugar
- 3 tbsp soy sauce
- 3 tbsp rice wine vinegar
- ½ cup chicken broth
- 1 tbsp cornstarch
- 1 tbsp sambal red chili paste 2 tbsp for spicy
- 1 tsp paprika
- Combine the sauce ingredients (except for the ginger and garlic) in a 2-cup measure or small bowl, mix well and set aside.
- In a bowl or freezer bag, toss the chicken with the salt, white pepper and flour until the pieces are evenly coated.
- Heat the oil in a wok or large frying pan to medium (about 335 F).
- Shake off excess flour then carefully add the chicken pieces to the frying pan.
- Cook on all sides for a total time of 5-8 minutes. Check for doneness by cutting the largest piece in half. The meat should be white throughout and reach a temperature of 165 F.
- When cooked, transfer the chicken to a plate lined with paper towels. Discard the used oil, allow to cool, then wipe the crumbs from the pan with a paper towel.
- Reheat the pan with a little remaining oil then add the garlic and ginger. Cook for about 30 seconds to bring out the flavours. Be careful not to over-cook.
- Add the remaining sauce ingredients to the pan. Cook at medium heat, stirring frequently until thickened. If sauce becomes too thick, thin with a little water.
- Add the chicken and toss to coat with the sauce. Remove and garnish with scallions.
- Boneless skinless chicken breasts instead of chicken thighs.
- Apple cider vinegar instead of rice wine vinegar.
- Chili Peppers or chili flakes instead of sambal.
- Black Pepper instead of white pepper.
- Sunflower or canola oil instead of peanut oil.
- Sesame seeds instead of scallions for garnish.
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