Don’t be fooled. Despite it’s name, General Tso’s (or Tse’s) Chicken is a Chinese North American dish, served almost exclusively in the US. It is a sweet deep fried chicken dish generally served with broccoli. Popular for takeout, it is also a mainstay of the North American Chinese restaurant menu.
This dish was named after a Qing Dynasty military leader but the affiliation of this Chinese historical figure and the dish named for him have no recorded connection. Tso Tsung-t’ang lived from 1812 to 1885, but none of his descendants know why the North American dish was named for him. It is not served in Hunan province, where he was born and lived.
There are numerous other origination claims on the dish – ranging from Taiwanese chef Peng Chang-kuei, whose Peng Restaurant in New York City offered the dish as early as 1973, to Shun Lee Palaces restaurant, also in New York.
Given the number of variations in the name of the dish and the many proposed points of origin, it is not really possible to pinpoint which one is correct.
What’s unique about General Tso’s Chicken?
Although its origins may be in dispute, most agree that basic ingredients for this dish are as follows:
boneless dark meat chicken cubes in a batter of egg and cornstarch, stir-fried, with a sweet sauce made with rice wine vinegar, sugar, soy sauce and red chili peppers, and served with broccoli.
The New York Times has published Peng’s version of General Tso’s Chicken, served with scallions and rice. This recipe is likely as “authentic” as it gets.
The gourmet website Epicurious has a version of General Tso’s Chicken that is lighter and likely more healthful than the takeout version.
With General Tso’s Chicken the variations are limited only by your imagination. Call it what you want and put in the ingredients that you want. The main issue is the ratio of sweetness to spice – an individual preference to be sure. There is no singular way for it to taste – but it should be high on umami, with a savoury comforting flavour in the mouth.
Some chefs opt to up the citrus favour with the addition of orange and lemon to the sauce. Others cut the sugar drastically to suit more health-conscious palates.
And it can be served with rice rather than broccoli, in combination with other vegetable dishes.