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General Tso Was a Culinary Scientist

No, not really. Tso Zongtang, aka General Tso, was…well, a General. A 19th century Chinese General. General Tso's chicken is a dish created in the 1950s by a chef who hailed from the same Hunanese town as General Tso, and who decided to name his creation after the hometown hero. Or Tso the story goes.

As originally conceived, General Tso’s chicken was not the same dish that we enjoy today. It was classic Hunanese cuisine, spicey and salty. Transforming it into something that appeals to the American palate…crispy fried chicken bits glazed with a sweet sauce and just a hint of spicey heat…that’s where the culinary science comes in. And lots of corn starch.

My test kitchen has been idle in recent weeks since soup and stew season ended, so I decided to try out some recipes from a new cookbook my son Chris and Daughter-in-Law Kelly gave me for Christmas. It is a book of wok recipes from my favorite Serious Eats food writer, J. Kenji Lopez-Alt. Chinese comfort food is always in season, so how could I go wrong trying one of his wok-based recipes?

For starters…I don't own a wok. Or at least I didn’t when I decided to tackle some of Kenji’s recipes. It’s not that I’ve never owned a wok…I have. I’ve owned several over the years, but I never quite figured out how they work. My past attempts to cook with a wok invariably ended with grease-soaked globs of meat and noodles that carried an odd metallic aftertaste. The latter probably came from the rust that always seemed to form in my woks after my lame attempts to season them. I guess that’s what I get for buying them from K-Mart.

Fortunately for me, Kenji devotes an entire chapter in his cookbook to choosing the right wok. After reading his recommendations, and the science behind them, I decided on a Yosukata black carbon steel wok. Since I cook on an electric cooktop, I heeded Kenji’s advice to go with a flat-bottomed wok instead of the traditional round-bottom design I had been using. When using a round bottomed wok on an electric cooktop, not enough of the pan comes into contact with the heat source to allow for even cooking. Which is why my previous wok efforts yielded grease soaked globs.

After my wok arrived, thank you Amazon, I cleaned and seasoned it (several times) as the manufacturer instructed, and then dug into Kenji’s recipe for General Tso’s chicken. I naively thought it would be an easy first dish for honing my wok cooking skills. I was wrong. Kenji’s recipe for General Tso’s chicken calls for 25 ingredients, some of which I had to order online since my local grocery store limits their Asian ethnic ingredients to oyster sauce and jasmine rice. Thank you again Amazon.

It was also more time consuming than many online recipes promise. The recipes I found on the internet consisted of dredging chicken bits in flour, tossing them into the wok oil, and then pouring jarred hoisin sauce over them. Simple. Kenji’s General Tso’s chicken is much more involved.

You start by making an egg-white based marinade, then you make a dry coating that incorporates some of the marinade (before the chicken goes into it), and more corn starch than I normally go through in several months of cooking. After that you make the sauce which is the easiest part of the dish to prep. All of that took me about an hour. Allow another 2-3 hours (minimum) for the chicken to marinate, and the prep makes it anything but a fast-food dish.

The good news is that once you are ready to cook, it only takes about 10-15 minutes of wok work. Here is a link to the recipe if you want to try it yourself. If nothing else, the attempt will give you a new appreciation for what cooks in Chinese restaurants go through to deliver take-out.

I got it about right on my first try which is a testament to the quality and detail of Kenji’s cookbook. And if I’m being honest, my General Tso’s Chicken turned out better than any Chinese take-out I’ve tasted.

If you want to impress your next dinner party with homemade General Tso’s chicken but are short on time the day of the event, you can do all the prep work the day prior and let the chicken marinate overnight in the fridge. The next day when you are ready to cook, it will take longer to make the rice than it will to cook up the rest of the dish.

Or you can do as Kenji suggests and just use Popeye's chicken nuggets. With his sauce, which takes just a few minutes to whip up, and Popeye's chicken nuggets, you can get a dish almost as good as if you made everything from scratch and it will only take you about 15 minutes. Hmmm...there's a Popeye's not far from my house. Maybe a future taste test...General Tso vs Popeye Tso?

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