Sunday, February 24, 2013

State-by-State Redux: IX of X - Americanized Chinese Cuisine Revisited - Tso many dishes, Tso little time...

Chinese food in the United States is typically, at best, "Chinese" food.  This is changing, of course, as more Chinese immigrants are opening more restaurants with authentic Chinese cuisine (or maybe they've been here all along, but everyone else is now patronizing them more often).  But "Chinese" food has evolved into something uniquely American, shaped by the first immigrants to the West Coast in the 19th century, and to points all over America today (mostly from Fujian province).  And different communities from the Chinese diaspora master different food feats in different parts of the world - shredded beef in the UK, for example, or ma po tofu in Japan [Lee 2008].  In the US of A, that Chinese dish that's gripped the nation is named after General Tso.

Snacking State-by-State Redux IX of X: Americanized Chinese Cuisine

What is it? Traditionally, a unique mix of Chinese cooking techniques and American ingredients, here since the 1840's.  Since then it has evolved into something not terribly recognizable in China, but instead is peculiarly American.  More recently, actual "Chinese" Chinese food has crossed the Pacific in the form of dim sum and other dishes that a Chinese tourist would actually recognize.
Where did it come from? See above

General Tso's chicken is not a real thing in China, but that doesn't stop Jennifer 8. Lee from seeking it out.  In her book The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food [2008], Lee analyzes the origins and state of Chinese food in America, from fortune cookies (actually based on a Japanese cookie) to chop suey to the ubiquitous General Tso's chicken.  Lee's quest to find this last dish took her all the way to a remote village in Hunan Province to find the origins of this dish, one which few Chinese chefs - scratch that, no Chinese chefs - had actually heard of.  As Lee notes:
The refrain was consistent: "We don't have General Tso's chicken here" or "We've never heard of it."  Even after I showed them pictures of the dish on my digital camera, they would frown and look at me blankly, then helpfully suggest another chicken dish, often  the local specialty, mala or kung pao.  One waitress at a three-hundred-year-old restaurant pressed me to try another dish associated with a famous Hunan personage: "This is what Mao Zedong and his circle ate when they used to come here."
But nothing they offered ever resembled our crispy General Tso's, nor his American cousins: sesame chicken, lemon chicken, sweet-and-sour chicken.  In fact, any batter-dipped, stir-fried chicken dish was hard to come by in this urban corner of Hunan. [Lee 2008: 68-69]
The closest Lee ever got was the home village of Zuo Zongtang, the 19th century local leader and statesman for whom this dish - the same one that has nothing to do with him whatsoever - is related.  There a distant modern relative to Zuo was befuddled by the photos Lee had of General Tso's - Zuo's - chicken on her phone.  Her informant did offer to cook dog, however - the kind "raised for eating" and not for pets.  Lee was, of course, taken aback: "I pictured how Americans would react to General Tso's puppy on their take-out menus" [2008: 73].

Lee never finds what we call General Tso's chicken, but that hasn't stopped Chinese-American chefs from trying to recreate this uniquely American dish.  How "American" is it?  Lee's schoolmate from Beijing University, Wang Wei, tells her why it's so American:
"It has broccoli.  Americans looove broccoli.  They add broccoli with everything."  She continued: "Americans like chicken.  You can go to a supermarket and you buy chicken breast, chicken legs, chicken drumsticks, chicken wings, boneless chicken.  All different types of chicken," she said, gesturing to various parts of her body..."It's very American.  It's all-American: very big pieces of chicken, fried and sweet." [Lee 2008: 74]
Since Lee can find no recipe for General Tso's chicken, I had to look elsewhere.  After finding many much healthier and more typically Chinese-style General Tso's chicken (Ching-He Huang's recipe being the most notable), I wanted something more typical of the Chinese fast food takeouts that Jennifer 8. Lee and myself are more familiar with.  I found that in Diana Kuan's Appetite for China blog (which she just turned into a cookbook).  Kuan is also familiar with Lee's aforementioned book, and tried to find out more about it herself.  Kuan tries out various versions of the dish before perfecting one that is as authentic as she can get it, deep-frying those chicken pieces with a whole lot of cornstarch.

It is Kuan's version of the General's chicken that I interpret below.  Unlike most recipes I have done, this time I am pretty much following this one to the letter, save for the addition of broccoli, which she doesn't specifically mention in her recipe.

The Recipe: General Tso's Chicken

To make Kuan's version of Zuo's chicken, assemble the following:

* chicken (Kuan calls for a pound of chicken thighs, boneless; I went for 1.5 lbs of chicken thighs, bone-in, and went from there.  I don't buy a lot of chicken, so I justified the expense of the less expensive thighs at the Whole Foods.  Actually I don't think they had boneless)
* cornstarch (I bought a new canister, about $1.50, because I needed a lot of it - about  a cup and a half, instead of the usual one or two teaspoons)
* sugar, salt & pepper (had them all)
* dried chiles (had this too)
* garlic (this too)
* sesame seeds (yup)
* green onions (getting pricier these days, about $1.50 a bunch)
* oil for frying (I had some of that high heat point rice bran oil from H-Mart)
* Though not pictured, I also added broccoli, as Jennifer 8. Lee's friend mentioned.  Because Americans LOVE broccoli!  Okay we don't all love it, but I am used to broccoli in my General Tso's chicken, so in it goes.

You will also need to marinade the chicken.  For that, assemble:
* sesame oil (had it in the fridge)
* soy sauce (I had this too)
* egg whites (discard those yolks, folks)

And for that famous sauce, assemble:
* chicken stock (I used that Better Than Boullion in the fridge)
* soy sauce
* hoisin sauce (got a new jar for about $2)
* rice vinegar (same)
* chile paste (I used the garlic chile paste from that Washington Dungeness crab recipe)
* more sugar, more soy sauce, and more cornstarch

It takes about six chicken thighs to yield one pound of meat.  Remember that when shopping.

Mix the marinade ingredients - the sesame oil, the egg whites and the soy sauce.

Marinade the meat for at least ten minutes.

Next, assemble the sauce ingredients.

Mix together in a bowl and set aside.

And mix salt and pepper into the massive amount of cornstarch.  You will coat the chicken in this.,

Heat your oil in a wok until at deep frying temperature

To prepare your marinated chicken for frying, plop each piece in the cornstarch mixture...

...and shake off the excess.

Fry several at a time for about five minutes, turning once.

Drain on a paper towel.

When done frying, reserve the oil (okay, dump it somewhere to cool down until you can just dispose of it), wipe out the wok and quickly fry your chiles and garlic in oil.

Add your sauce for a minute or so...

...and then your chicken to coat.

I added the broccoli bits until no longer frozen (I did also nuke it in the microwave to expedite the process).  Serve with scallions and rice.

Granted, the next time I may just be lazy and buy it ready-made.  Still, now I can make General Tso's tasty chicken at home.  It wasn't as sweet as I'm used to, but I've actually found orange chicken to be the really sweet one.  When I order Chinese I usually go back and forth between orange and General Tso's chicken.  What's good about this one is that it isn't stringy and all "mystery meat"-ish like the kind you sometimes buy at a Chinese take-out place.  It's tender, somewhat crispy (less so when you reheat it - pop it in the oven and not the microwave if you are concerned about that), and just sweet enough.  Plus, it's satisfying to know that you made it yourself without opening a packet of seasoning or a big-ass can labeled "Chun King".

- - - - -

Well, this feels pretty strange, y'all, but the next State-by-State post is it - THE LAST one!  I thought for a while about how to sum this up.  Unlike my Beltway Snacking series a few years ago, where I wrote a long summary, for this I'm just making an all-American meal instead.  Next week you will find out what it is, but more importantly who wrote the recipe: the most quintessentially American of chefs herself.

Also: as noted yesterday, look at the blog on Tuesday morning (February 26).  I have a big announcement to make about what I'm up to next, now that this State-by-State series is fast approaching its end.


Kuan, Diana.  "General Tso's Chicken".  Appetite for China, posted August 30, 2011.

Lee, Jennifer 8.  The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food.  Twelve Books: New York, 2008.

Some information also obtained from the Food Timeline State Foods webpage.