Apparently, if you cook chilies in more oil than necessary, then add liquid, you will create your very own homemade pepper spray. As I was cooking the General Tso’s Chicken, I was suddenly overcome by a combination hacking and sneezing fit (in retrospect it’s not something that I thought would be physiologically possible but I often manage to surprise myself with my own abilities). By the time my wife noticed my predicament, the toxic cloud had drifted the few feet to her and she was overcome. And now I understand how pepper spray works.
Now, I don’t normally cook Chinese food (let alone any Asian cuisine). It’s not that I don’t like it, it’s just that it’s culinarily 180 degrees from my comfort zone. I usually stick to Italian or French dishes, occasionally adding in other European fare or the Americanized versions thereof (thereof is a seriously underrated word in the English language). In my mind, Asian food is something you go out to eat (speaking of which, why are there a dearth of reasonably good Chinese places in Long Beach?)
Chinese and other Asian foods are different from my American (and by extension European) culinary tradition (well don’t I sound pompous; perhaps I should refer to food tradition). The techniques are just significantly different. While thinking about the differences, I realized I’m not even qualified to comment on what the differences are: that is my level of understanding of Asian cuisine. I’ve made a few successful stir fries (and I highly recommend this tutorial) but they were rather Americanized affairs.
Despite this lack of knowledge, I had heard rumors that Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Recipes from Hunan Province was a good cookbook. I also have happened to find that the library has an online request system (somehow with regards to libraries I’m stuck in mid-1980’s; I’m still skeptical of using anything that isn’t a real card catalog). Of course the combination of a cookbook to reconnoiter and an automagical book request system meant that I got a copy of the book into my grubby little hands (their much grubbier when I make bread but that’s another story, or would that be blog post?).
Being a good American, I immediately thought that many of the recipes would not be the first on my list to try. I mean, many of them even had vegetables in them. While that’s not really what I thought, I did think that some of the ingredients I had not heard of before and would be a bit harder to come by and that my vegetable-hating wife (well, maybe not all vegetables) would not like them.
So what was probably one of the only recipes in the entire cookbook I had heard of (not counting the spring rolls; is it just me or do spring rolls seem to be entirely too time consuming to actually make? all those who make them have my respect) was General Tso’s Chicken. In the cookbook, two different versions are listed: one from Taiwan (where the dish was invented) and one from Hunan (which is the style in which it is made). Not surprising to me was the fact that it’s virtual unheard of in China (that would be the People’s Republic of, it’s actually found in Taiwan). Contrary to rumors I heard, however, there was actually a General Tso at some point in the past (and I figured he was just made up).
As to the recipe itself, the first item to note is that it is spicy. Very spicy. Now, I can’t claim to like my food flaming hot, but I do like my food a bit spicy. This was a bit spicier than I’d like and my wife gave up eating it after awhile due to its heat. So if you don’t like it hot, add less chilies. In retrospect, seasoning the chicken with salt and pepper before mixing in the marinade would make a better dish (to my Anglo-Saxon mind). The original recipe specified potato flour but it’s not in my pantry, so I substituted corn starch and there didn’t seem to be any ill-effects from it. The recipe also specified Shaioking vinegar which, according to the book, is a dark rice wine vinegar, so I substituted that (which is still a pain to find; I eventually had to go to Little Saigon to find it). My final substitution was replacing peanut oil with canola oil because Costco stopped selling it. While Changsha version is supposed to be closer to American versions of General Tso’s Chicken, it’s really not. There’s a vague resemblance but it’s really a different dish.
General Tso’s Chicken (Changsha Version)
Adapted from Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Recipes from Hunan Province
12 oz. chicken (preferably thigh or leg meat)
6 small dried chilies, cut into 3/4″ lengths, seeds removed
3/4 in of fresh ginger, thinly sliced
1 tbsp tomato paste
3 scallions, green parts only, thinly slice
1 tsp sesame oil peanut oil
For the marinade:
2 tsp light soy sauce
1/2 tsp dark soy sauce
1 egg yolk
4 tsp corn starch
For the sauce:
1/2 tsp corn starch
2 tsp sugar
2 tsp black rice vinegar
1/4 tsp dark soy sauce
- Cut the chicken into bit-sized pieces. Don’t be like me. Make them actually bite-sized. There’s few things more annoying (this would the textbook definition of hyperbole) than eating food with chopsticks that are too big for one bite.
- In a bowl, mix the marinade soy sauce, egg yolk, and chicken. Then mix in the corn starch. The mixture will become very sticky.
- In a small bowl, mix the sauce ingredients.
- Combine the tomato paste with 1 tbsp of water.
- In a wok, add enough oil to come up about 3 to 4 inches (depending on the size of your chicken). Heat oil to between 350° F to 400° F. Deep fry chicken pieces, in several batches, until it is golden brown. Remove chicken to a bowl after deep frying.
- Pour all but1 tbsp of oil into a heat proof container. Turn your vent fan onto maximum (you’re about to pepper spray yourself). Turn burner to high. Working quickly, add the dried chilies, then add the garlic, then add the tomato paste. Cook until tomato paste becomes burnt orange. Add the sauce mixture and stand back (this is the pepper spray creation moment). Once the sauce stops boiling with the oil, stir as the sauce thickens.
- Once the sauce thickens satisfactorily (you want it relatively thick), add the chicken to the mixture and coat thoroughly.
- Off heat, add the scallions and sesame oil.