Learn how to cook this classic dish the real Chinese way.
The first time I heard about General Tso’s Chicken was right after I started blogging in 2013. I thought it was an American Chinese dish invented by an early immigrant, until I watched In Search of General Tso. The story is more complicated than what I can cover here – this signature Chinese dish reflects the journey of the spread of Chinese food in the US.
The facts about General Tso’s Chicken are:
- This dish is not found in China.
- General Tso does exist in Chinese history but he has nothing to do with this dish.
- The dish was originally introduced to the US by a Chinese chef from Taiwan.
- The techniques and the flavors of the dish were inspired by Hunan cuisine.
I have to confess, I’ve never tried General Tso’s Chicken in the US. After one sugar loaded experience at a famous Chinese chain restaurant, I’ve not ventured near takeout style Chinese again ever since.
I’m quite confident that I could speculate that the flavor of General Tso’s Chicken, from its appearance in TV shows and Chinese takeout menus, that it is deep fried crispy chicken cooked in a sweet, sour, savory, spicy, and aromatic sauce.
How could that go wrong?
The recipe I’m sharing today is adapted slightly from the Chinese cookbook Phoenix Claws and Jade Trees by Kian Lam Kho, the author behind Red Book. His book won the Julia Child First Book Award from IACP (International Association of Culinary Professional) in 2016.
Phoenix Claws and Jade Trees focuses on cooking techniques. The chapters document wok cooking, frying, slow cooking, steaming etc. It is a great reference book where I could learn about various cooking methods and the signature dishes. The book covers many classic dishes such as red cooked pork and mapo tofu. It also includes various regional cuisine that you won’t usually find in oversea restaurants. Some dishes might look unfamiliar and challenging, but if you’re into authentic Chinese food, this is a great copy to own.
Back to the talk of cooking General Tso’s Chicken in your own kitchen. The process is quite similar to cooking sweet and sour chicken. You can watch the video below to get an idea of the workflow, and the wok cooking process.
The only difference is we’re using a larger batch of sauce in this recipe, American style. So you will get plenty of sauce to serve with your steamed rice. It also gives you a chance to slowly reduce the sauce to the texture you prefer without overcooking.
The recipe has a long ingredient list. But it requires very little chopping and the preparation is quite easy. Right before cooking, you should have these ingredients ready near your stove (see picture below): chicken in marinade, cornstarch in a bowl, mixed sauce, minced ginger and garlic, dried chili peppers, and a cooling rack set up for the fried chicken.
To cook the dish, deep fry chicken in small batches first and drain extra oil on the cooling rack. Then quickly toss the aromatics to release fragrance, and pour in sauce to reduce. Once the sauce is reduced, return chicken to the wok to coat the sauce. If you want your chicken crispier, you can place it in a plate and pour sauce over it. Either way works.
- 1 pound boneless skinless chicken thighs, cut into 2-cm (1-inch) pieces (*footnote 1)
- 2 tablespoons Shaoxing wine (or dry sherry)
- 1 large egg white
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
Sauce (or 1/3 cup homemade General Tso Sauce + 1/3 cup stock)
- 3/4 cup chicken stock or water
- 1/4 cup Shaoxing wine (or dry sherry)
- 2 tablespoons Chinkiang vinegar
- 1 tablespoon light soy sauce (or soy sauce)
- (Optional) 1 teaspoon hoisin sauce
- 1 and 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch (or 2 tablespoons tapioca starch)
- 1 and 1/2 tablespoon sugar (*footnote 2)
- 3 to 4 cups high smoking point vegetable oil for frying
- 3/4 cup cornstarch (or tapioca starch)
- 3 tablespoons grated garlic (from 10 cloves garlic) (*footnote 3)
- 1 tablespoon grated ginger
- 1/4 cup dried red chilies
- (Optional) 1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
- 1 teaspoon sesame seeds, toasted
- 2 tablespoons thinly sliced green onion
- Whisk all the marinade ingredients in a bowl and add chicken cubes. Stir well to coat chicken evenly with spices. Marinate for 20 minutes.
- Combine all the sauce ingredients in another bowl, set aside.
- Prepare all the ingredients for the stir fry and keep them near your stove. Set a cooling rack on top of a tray (or a large colander on top of a bowl).
- Heat vegetable oil in a wok over high heat until it reaches 190 degrees C (375 F). If you do not have a thermometer, test oil temperature by inserting a wooden chopstick into the oil. If the oil starts bubbling rapidly, the oil is hot enough for frying. If the oil bubbles vigorously, then the oil is too hot and needs to cool off a bit. If there are no or very few bubbles pop up, then it’s not hot enough.
- Roll chicken pieces in the bowl of cornstarch to generously coat a layer of starch. Shake off extra starch. Fry chicken in small batches until golden brown, about 4 minutes. Transfer the chicken onto the cooling rack to drain extra oil.
- Once the chicken is done, carefully remove oil from the wok and transfer to a heat proven container, such as an aluminum pot (Do not use glassware for this step! The high temperature will break the glass and cause an oil burn). Wipe the wok clean with paper towel attached to the front of a pair of tongs.
- Add 2 tablespoons oil and turn on medium heat. Add garlic and ginger, stir until fragrant. Add dried chili peppers. Stir a few times to release aroma. Stir the sauce again with a small spoon until the starch is fully dissolved. Pour into the wok. Cook until sauce thickens, about 1 minute. Return the chicken to the wok and quickly toss with a spatula. Add sesame oil and give it a final stir, if using.
- Immediately transfer everything into a plate. Garnish with toasted sesame seeds and green onion.
- Serve hot as a main over steamed rice.
1. The original recipe calls for a smaller cut of chicken (3/4-inch cubes). I found larger cut (1 to 1 and 3/4-inch) is easier to fry and it generates better mouthfeel.
2. I slightly increased the sugar. If you like your dish sweet, like Chinese take-out, double the sugar amount.
Full disclosure: This blog post is a part of the Phoenix Claws and Jade Trees cookbook campaign. The cookbooks for the giveaway winners are sponsored by Clarkson Potter. The wok used in this post and the grand giveaway prize are sponsored by Anolon.