It’s ironic that my first post about a Hunan (Xiang) dish is not known or recognised in Hunan at all, but it is the best known Chinese dish across the whole of the United States. This dish was inspired by the movie “The Search for General Tso” (2014) directed by Ian Cheney. In the film, Cheney and his best friend tried to look for the origins of General Tso’s Chicken – which to everyone’s surprise is completely unknown in China. The movie also showcases the sufferings of American Chinese, and how in order to survive, they opened up Chinese restaurants across the country serving up a version of Chinese cuisine that exists only in America. I strongly recommend this movie for every foodie and every history buff!
Who is General Tso?
I will leave you to watch the movie but here are some essentials I’d like to point out to explain my recipe. First of all, the identity of General Tso is crucial. Contrary to expectations, he was a real person. General Tso was actually an Earl called Zuo Zongtang 左宗棠 who lived in Qing Dynasty China from 1812-1885. He was and still is celebrated in his native Hunan province for being a national hero, after crushing the Taiping Revolution and invading Xinjiang bringing it under Manchu Chinese rule. For all Hunanese, there has never been any other hero but Zuo, and there never will be.
So who actually invented this dish?
This bit might come as a shock: this dish was actually invented in Taiwan, not in the US.
When the army of the Republic of China retreated to Taiwan, their cooks and servants followed.
One such cook was Mr Peng Changgui 彭長貴, a Hunanese. Back in the seventies, he was cook at the Premier’s residence, and the Premier then was Jiang Jingguo 蔣經國 (Chiang Ching-kuo).
According to Peng, Premier Jiang arrived home late one night and asked for food. The only meat left was some chicken drumsticks and Peng had to make do with it.
He took the bones off the drumsticks and deep-fried them before stir-frying them with dried chilies, a key ingredient in Modern Hunanese cuisine. Apparently Premier Jiang loved it and he asked Peng what dish it was. Peng, being a Hunanese, came up with a lie: it was a favourite chicken dish of Zuo Zongtang. Both being national heros, Premier Jiang shares the same taste as Earl Zuo.
After he retired from his services, Peng Changgui opened up a restaurant called Peng Gardens 彭園, which continued to be frequented by army veterans who also liked it because it was a favourite of Premier Jiang.
So how did it spread to the US?
You’ll have to watch out for this in the movie, as there is an exciting story behind it. The recipe was actually stolen from Peng and brought to the US right at the time when Americans were getting mad about Chinese food. That being said, the thief did not steal his recipe wholesale. He modified it to suit American palate, which is why this guy did better than Peng when Peng tried to bring his original version to the US himself. The crucial difference is that Americans love fried food and they love anything sweet. That was the crucial reason why General Tso’s Chicken – American Style – took off in the US in the early eighties.
What about my version?
This recipe however, is not your regular General Tso’s Chicken you get in the US. My version is an attempt to make the dish Hunanese again.
Here are the key differences:
First, Peng’s original version does not have a bed of broccoli. Mine does not either. It’s just not done. Period.
Second, Hunan Cuisine (or ‘Xiang Cuisine’) does not allow for sweet to be paired with salty.
Modern Hunan cuisine is known to be the cousin of Sichuan cuisine – they are the only two Chinese cuisines that use chilies, the rest do not.
Yet Hunan Cuisine has a strict taste pairing structure. I will write another blog post about this when I have the chance.
In short, there are five primary tastes for the main ingredient of your dish: salty, sweet, bitter, chili hot, sour. The secondary taste of your dish, be it a sauce, a paired vegetable or another meat, cannot overtake the primary taste and the pairing has to be set within thirty-three different permutations.
Salty is the primary taste of the chicken, so chili and sweet cannot be its secondary taste, while chili and sour can. Which is why Peng condemns the Americanisation of his dish.
Third, Peng’s original recipe was not Hunanese either. That is the irony. Apparently, Chef Peng learnt his skills from a renown Chef Cao Jinchen 曹藎臣, also an exile from Hunan. However, Chef Cao actually learnt his skills in Shanghai. First deep-frying chicken then stir-frying in a wet sauce is not a feature of Hunan Xiang Cuisine, but more of coastal cuisines like Cantonese (Goloyok 咕噜肉) or Shanghainese (fried sweet pork ribs 糖醋排骨). In terms of taste, Peng’s dish was Hunanese, but not in terms of form.
My version tried to stay as close as possible to Peng’s orignal version, without adding any sugar but added vinegar following Hunan culinary rules.
- 8 chicken drumsticks (with skin)
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 2cm thick fresh ginger, thinky sliced
- 1 shallot, minced
- 100g dried Chinese chilies, cut into 2-3cm segments
- 500ml vegetable oil (for frying)
- 4 tbs corn flour
- 1 tbs Chinese Zhenjiang vinegar
- 3 tbs light soy sauce
- 2 tbs water
- 3 dashes of sesame oil
- salt and pepper
- Garnish: chopped spring onion (optional)
Serving: 4 persons
- Clean the chicken drumsticks thoroughly. With a very sharp knife, cut a full circle around the thinnest part of the drumstick and then cut through vertically all the way to the top. Cut the flesh away from the bone so that in the end, you have a small slice of chicken filet with the skin on. You can save the bone later to make chicken stock.
- Depending on the size of your drumstick fillet, cut into half if necessary.
- Mix the fillets with a dash of salt and pepper, 1 tbs light soy sauce and 4 tbs corn flour. Cover and marinate for 15 minutes.
- Prepare a small pot with 500ml of vegetable oil. When the oil is hot, deep-fry the chicken fillet.
- Place them apart (do not stack them) on a kitchen paper towel to cool and air-dry.
- Heat up 5tbs oil (from the frying pot) in your wok on medium heat.
- Put the following ingredients in this order and stir-fry until the fragrance is emitted: ginger, garlic, shallot, chili
- Add in your chicken fillet and mix well.
- Add 1tbs vinegar, 2tbs light soy sauce, sesame oil and 2 tbs water in a bowl. Stir into the wok and mix well.
- Serve piping hot on a place and garnish with spring onion.