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I realize this is a recipe request, but I'm hoping that the supplemental information will be enough to let it through. I also realize it's rather localized and apologize to all of those who don't know what I'm on about.

So, I am a huge fan of General Tso's chicken. I grew up on the east coast of the USA in the DC/VA area. Every dish of General Tso's was more or less the same: breaded deep fried chicken, a spicy, thick, reddish brown sauce with a hint of sweetness, chili peppers, sesame seed, and broccoli.

Since moving to Chicago I have been unable to find this style of General Tso's. Out here the sauce is runny, brown, sickly sweet, and barely spicy. They also put all kinds of random crap (vegetables) that I don't want in there. I've tried this dish in L.A., Seattle, and Phoenix and it's all similarly gross. I've even had one where the chicken wasn't breaded!

The dish I want to know how to make looks like this:

General Tso's Chicken

I realize D.C./VA is a rather specific area, but since this dish originated in New York City, I imagine that it didn't get butchered much migrating 200 miles south. So, while I haven't had NYC General Tso's I imagine that it's quite similar, or at least much closer than the mess I have out here in the midwest.

Update

I'd prefer first-hand knowledge to a top 3 Google hit.

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I usually went for other dishes, but the times I had General Tso's growing up in the Detroit metro area sounds like what you described. So you may have to go only a few hours east :). urbanspoon.com/r/19/233742/restaurant/Detroit/Kim-Toa-Warren –  ManiacZX Jul 23 '10 at 23:10
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@Sam: I'd just like to point out a few significant differences between the two posts. I don't pose it as a "what is a good", nor "what is the best" question. I've listed most of the ingredients in it. My region isn't a "few places", as stated by myself and indicated by commenters it covers nearly the entire eastern seaboard of North America, as far inland as Michigan. I'd hardly call that too localized, as opposed to an interstate exit in a single city. However, it's your vote to do with as you please. –  hobodave Jul 24 '10 at 8:17
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@hobodave, maybe as a non american part of a country seems a small area to me. Agreed that it is not a 'what is a good' or 'what is best', but I still feel that it would be better phrased as a 'how can I fix this so it is more like X', and would have a wider audience even if they had never eaten the actual dish in question. Also part of me feels that as you are highly reputable, it may be seen as favouritism for 'the in crowd' and maybe that is clouding my judgement –  Sam Holder Jul 24 '10 at 8:27
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@Sam: When talking about regional food, too localized is a bit of a farce, as I'm sure most people would agree. There are sweets found only in West Bengal. Does that mean discussion about Bengali sweets is not allowed here because they are too localized? what about szechuan food? As a cooking Q&A site, I would expect it to be slightly more open to such questions. –  Mechko Jul 24 '10 at 12:37
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@Sam: I disagree with you in this case because the OP (hobodave) has provided objective criteria for evaluating the answers. Specifically, there are criteria for the colour, spiciness, and basic ingredients. I am intimately aware of the differences between what dave is referring to and the generic "General Tso" you find on recipe sites and many restaurants. This is a difficult question with an objectively correct answer, whereas "U.S. Style Teriyaki Chicken" can actually refer to any number of different dishes, and the only criteria given was "damn good." –  Aaronut Jul 24 '10 at 13:00

4 Answers 4

up vote 16 down vote accepted

Many restaurants actually serve a "light" version of the Tso sauce, and I have a pretty strong feeling that's what you're used to.

To make the light version, you use 3x the corn starch and add 1/2 cup of the base liquid (usually chicken broth).

The hint of sesame almost certainly came from toasted sesame oil, my favourite "secret ingredient" that goes into just about every Asian stir-fry.

To get a more consistent flavour for the sauce, instead of using "minced" garlic, you might want to grate it using a fine rasp, if you have one. This will definitely help to bring out the flavour of the garlic and subsequently the spiciness of the sauce.

Grated orange zest is another common additive, and although it's traditionally labeled as a different recipe ("General Tso's Chicken with Orange"), some restaurants sneak it into the regular recipe. If you remember any hint of orange, try adding about 1 tsp of this.

Finally, if we're trying to recreate a recipe from an American Chinese restaurant, it's very likely they used some MSG. You can leave it out, but we all know how much of a flavour enhancer it is.

I don't actually have an exact recipe kicking around, but adapting these changes to the "traditional" recipe, it should look something like this:

  • 1 cup chicken broth
  • 1/4 cup soy sauce
  • 2-3 tbsp rice wine or sherry (to taste)
  • 1 tsp toasted sesame oil
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 tsp MSG (optional)
  • 1 1/2 tbsp rice vinegar
  • 3 tbsp tapioca flour or corn starch
  • 6-10 dried red chilies
  • 1 tbsp minced ginger
  • 1 tbsp grated or finely minced garlic

I'm going to skip the ingredients and preparation for the fried chicken itself, since that's pretty straightforward and no different from any of the "normal" Tso recipes. So let's assume that part has already been done. Here's how I'd make the sauce and finish it off:

  • Combine the chicken broth, soy sauce, rice wine, sesame oil, sugar, [MSG], and rice vinegar. Make sure that the sugar is completely dissolved.

  • Add tapioca to the soy sauce mix and dissolve.

  • Heat a few tbsp of oil in your wok and start frying up the chilies. The longer you fry them, the hotter the final dish will be, so adjust the timing to taste. Many restaurants skimp here, and either don't use enough chilies or don't fry for anywhere near long enough. You're looking for a deep, dark red, almost black colour for optimum heat.

  • Add the soy sauce / tapioca mix, garlic and ginger, and stir.

  • Once thickened, add the chicken and serve with the broccoli. (You most likely got it steamed, that's how it looks in the picture, although my choice would be to stir-fry it with some red pepper flakes.)

I can't promise you that this will be identical to what you got in the restaurants, as I haven't been to those restaurants, but hopefully this sounds a lot closer to what you had than the garbage you traditionally find in lower-end restaurants and on recipe sites.


Update: After reading some of the results of this experiment, I would add the following (better late than never, right?):

  • The above ratio of starch to water will result in a very thick, almost paste-like consistency. That's intentional, but if you want something more "saucy", i.e. to put on rice, then don't triple the starch, especially if you're using tapioca. 2 tbsp should be sufficient. At the same time, keep in mind that it's always easier to dilute a sauce that's too thick than it is to thicken it in the wok once it's already hot.

  • If you're finding that it's still not spicy enough (I, too, like my spicy dishes blazing hot), then try including any or all of the following in the sauce:

    • 1 tsp chili oil
    • 1 tsp hot chili sauce (proper chili sauce like sriracha, not tabasco)
    • 2-3 fresh red chilies, cut into rings, with seeds (caution: very hot)
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I'm going shopping this afternoon. I'm going to try this tonight, I'll let you know how it turns out. –  hobodave Jul 24 '10 at 18:08
    
@hobodave: Looking forward to hearing about it! Hope I didn't make any major screwups in my adjustments, it's always easier when I'm in the kitchen. ;) –  Aaronut Jul 24 '10 at 23:16
    
@Aaronut: Operation Tso is complete. Photos: flickr.com/photos/hobodave/sets/72157624450024941 It certainly looks like what I'm used to, and the orange zest is definitely a nice touch. However, it just wasn't that spicy (hot). I had to redo the peppers because the first batch burnt so quickly, it took maybe 2 minutes to fry the peppers before they would burn. Also, the consistency of this was SUPER THICK. It went from liquid to paste in a flash, I had to add another cup of broth to get it somewhat normal. It's still somewhat off in consistency, it oozes off in sheets. –  hobodave Jul 25 '10 at 1:44
    
It certainly tastes good, and it's better than the crap I've had out here in Chicago. I think it just needs more heat, and a consistency tweak. Eating the chilis gives it a nice kick of heat though. –  hobodave Jul 25 '10 at 1:44
    
@hobodave: Interesting, how many chilies did you use? And did you use tapioca or corn starch? Generally there's no other "heat source" in General Tso, but if you're not getting the right amount of heat, you might consider chili oil, or an actual fresh chili pepper (with seeds). In any case, I'm glad to hear that it was at least a moderate success; if you get it really nailed down in the future after a few iterations, be sure to give us an update! –  Aaronut Jul 25 '10 at 1:57

I don't know if this is the right recipe, as I have only had General Tso's chicken by this recipe and in a small town in upstate NY, but it tasted good to me.

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here is a recipe. really your worry will be the sauce itself. cornstarch is the secret to the thickening part. if you are new to cooking i would suggest just working on a sauce first and play with the elements first. every chinese place does it differently. the chicken is simple to cook so get the sauce and your good to go

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Originally from the Northeast US, I too was surprised that one of my favorite Chinese take-away dishes was so radically different. The 2 critical bits for me was recreating the texture of the "breading" and the sauce. I found that, for me, baking or sauteing the chicken first, then "breading" with a corn starch or tapioca batter WITHOUT LEAVENING and frying in oil gave the best results for the chicken. Too many places use some kind of leavening so instead of a crispy shell (akin to a KFC drumstick) instead I found I was eating a puffy dough ball.

The second bit, to make the sauce closer to my expectations. Aaronut has a good response there. Adding a healthy measure of garlic and getting the sugars to carmelize and reduce to a sticky brown almost-but-not-quite glaze... yumm!

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BTW, the tapioca batter was not pleasant to fry with. –  hobodave Aug 4 '10 at 19:21

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