Jay Patruno, Junior Dietetics Student, SAR ’18
Although we made this dish with tofu instead of chicken to keep with the Test Kitchen’s vegetarian theme, this recipe for General Tso’s Chicken was still quick, easy, and flavorful. All of the ingredients came together to create a delicious and simple dish. Making this dish inspired me to dig into the history a little bit to find out who General Tso actually was and how this dish became so popular here in the United States.
Despite the fact that General Tso’s Chicken is a very popular Hunanese dish in the United States, it is largely unknown to the people of China’s Hunan Province. Even ancient texts don’t describe any dish being named after General Tso, who was famous for recapturing the western desert region of China from Muslim rebel groups during the Qing dynasty 1. Instead, this dish actually hails from Taiwan, the place where members of the Chinese Nationalist Party fled after China’s Civil War 1. Chef Peng Chang-kuei is credited for first making this dish in the 1950s in Taiwan, noting that although this dish was not part of classic Hunanese cuisine, it did have some classic Hunanese flavors– heavy, sour, hot, and salty 1.
In 1943, Chef Peng opened his first restaurant in New York City, where Hunanese cuisine was relatively uncommon at the time. It wasn’t until Henry Kissinger and members of the nearby United Nations Headquarters discovered Chef Peng and his food that Hunanese cuisine started to take off. As Chef Peng started feeding more Americans, he actually altered the original recipe for General Tso’s Chicken by adding more sugar to fit with the American palate1.
Here is where the story gets juicy: Chef Peng returned to the Hunan Province in the 1990s and opened a restaurant featuring his General Tso’s Chicken on the menu. The dish was not a favorite there (described as too sweet) and the restaurant did not last long. Nonetheless, chefs learned to make the dish and brought the recipe to demonstrations abroad where foreign audiences loved it 1. General Tso’s Chicken has since been adopted as a traditional dish by many chefs and restaurants. Sadly, Chef Peng died in December of 2016 at the age of 98, leaving behind a tasty legacy that continues to be very popular2.
Sargent Choice General Tso’s Tofu Stir Fry
Recipe modified from The Minimalist Baker
Yield: 4 servings
Tofu and Broccoli:
- 12 ounces extra firm tofu
- 4 cups broccoli florets
- 2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon chili garlic sauce
- 1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
- 1 tablespoon maple syrup
- 4-5 tablespoons cornstarch
- 2 tablespoons neutral oil (such as grapeseed or canola)
- 2 teaspoons sesame oil
- 2 teaspoons cornstarch
- 2 large cloves garlic, minced (~ 1 heaping tablespoon)
- 1 tablespoon ginger, minced
- 1 tablespoon rice vinegar (can substitute white vinegar)
- 3 tablespoons maple syrup
- 3 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons water
- 1 tablespoon sesame oil
- 1 bundle green onions, bulbs removed roughly chopped
- 4-7 dried chilies (for heat, or can sub 1 tablespoon chili garlic sauce, more or less to taste)
- Wrap tofu in a clean, absorbent towel and set something heavy on top to wick away moisture, such as a cast iron skillet. Let rest for about 10 minutes.
- Prep/Chop broccoli, green onions, garlic, and ginger at this time. Set aside separately.
- While tofu is pressing, prepare sauce by combining sesame oil, cornstarch, minced garlic, minced ginger, rice vinegar, maple syrup, soy sauce, and water in a small mixing bowl and whisk thoroughly to combine.
- Unwrap tofu and cut into even pieces, about ¾-inch cubes. Add tofu to a shallow mixing bowl and top with soy sauce, chili garlic sauce, sesame oil, and maple syrup. Toss to combine. Rest 2-3 minutes. Stir.
- Use a slotted spoon or fork to transfer tofu to a quart-size or large freezer bag. Add cornstarch 1 tablespoon at a time and toss to coat. Continue adding more cornstarch and tossing until tofu is coated in a gummy, white layer, about 4-5 tablespoons.
- Heat a large metal or cast iron skillet to over medium heat. To the hot skillet, add 2 tablespoons grapeseed or canola oil and let warm for 30 seconds. Then use a slotted spoon or fork to add tofu to the pan (leaving any excess cornstarch behind).
- Cook on all sides for 1 minute, or until light golden brown. Be careful not to burn! Aim for a consistent golden brown crust. Remove tofu from pan as it is finished browning. Set aside.
- Return skillet to burner and increase heat to medium-high. Add 1 tablespoon sesame oil, broccoli, chopped green onion, and dried red chilies. Sauté for 1-2 minutes, stirring frequently.
- Add the sauce and tofu. Cook, stirring frequently, to coat the tofu and vegetables for 1-2 minutes or until warmed through and the sauce has slightly thickened.
- Serve Stir Fry with brown rice. Enjoy!
- The Strange Tale of General Tso’s Chicken. NPR Website. http://www.npr.org/ templates/story/story.php?storyId=7639868. February 28, 2007. Accessed February 22, 2017.
- Peng Chang-kuei, Chef Behind General Tso’s Chicken, Dies at 98. New York Times Website. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/02/world/asia/general-tso-chicken-peng-chang-kuei.html. December, 2016. Accessed February 22, 2017.