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General Tso - The Mystery Man

by Irving Beilin Chang


Winter Volume: 1996 Issue: 3(4) page(s): 5 and 6

One of the most tasty, sumptuous, and well balanced dishes found on most Chinese restaurants menus is General Tso's Chicken. If you have never had it, try it at your next opportunity.

To make this dish, the chef takes selected cuts of the leg and thigh meat of the chicken, coats it with an egg and flour mixture, then deep fries it in oil to insure that its juices are retained. This gives the chicken morsels a slightly crispy crunch. A few sprigs of green broccoli florets are blanched in boiling water as garnish and a brown sweet and sour sauce is poured over the chicken. The sauce is made from garlic, ginger sugar, soy sauce, vinegar, whole red peppers, and some cornstarch and stock or water mixed in as a thickener. This combination of flavors gives General Tso's Chicken its unique and tasty appeal.

Why was this dish named after the general? Who was this man? My wife and I knew that his name was Tso Tsung Tong, a famous Hunan general, but nothing else. So we decided to research this question and find out more about this military man. We had an inside track.

First I asked my sister who in the 1920's as a young girl had gone with my mother to a local YWCA meeting at the invitation of Madam Tso (his No. 3 wife) at the general's home in Changsa, in Hunan, China. My sister remembered visiting this venerable old lady and having some tea there. When she was there, the general had long passed away and Madam Tso, many years his junior, was then the 'first lady' in town. Unfortunately, that was all my sister recalled.

Changsa (the capital of the Hunan province), situated in central China, was the general's home base. My mother, an American born Chinese, was a much sought after guest in this town. Madam Tso, although old, enjoyed hosting the YWCA meetings at her home. My father, at that time was dean of Yali, the Yale-in-China School. Yali, funded by the Yale-in-China Association of New Haven, was situated in that city. The fact that Yali could be located there I am sure had the blessings of the Tso family. So those associated with Yali were the American connection in this mid-Yangtze-River-valley city.

To find out more about the general, my wife suggested that I write to our local Chinese magazine, Sino Monthly New Jersey, for information on General Tso. Their editor kindly wrote back with the following timely information:

General Tso Tsung Tong (1812-1885) was born in Xiang Yin, thirty-five miles north of Changsa. He was a very famous General under the Manchu Dynasty and his military activities took him to many parts of China. He was a very active person and loved his food, especially meat. Everywhere he went, the local magistrates in order to cultivate his favor, would prepare special feasts in his honor, perhaps to solicit favors and at least so that he would think kindly of them. He was a hard person to please, but try they did.

Once he was sent to Xinjiang on a military expedition. The people of this western border-province were mainly Muslims whose religion did not allow them to eat pork; so the general's diet was severely curtailed. Three months later when he got back, specifically to Lanzhour, a big feast was served in celebration of his successful expedition. He told his associates that although he was not entertained with song and dance, this elaborate and bountiful meal more than made up for the very long and tough expedition where he had no pork to eat.

In 1875, the Dowager Tse Xi promoted him to the royal court. She held a banquet in his honor in the capital, Beijing. At that banquet, they made sure that he had double servings of all the entrees. The general would always finish his portion with one sweep of his chopsticks, as if to say, he was not impressed.

After the above banquet, one of his compatriots asked him: 'Old friend, at one seating you can devour so much meat. It is as the old saying goes: A general's fame is as big as his appetite. I hope that stomach of yours can live up to your fame.' The general smiled and retorted: 'Your people love to put words in others people's mouths. What do you know? Instead of meat you can only eat the roots of vegetables. I am lucky that I enjoy meat. Maybe one day I will be stigmatized and might even be called: The Meat Eating General.'

Everyone surmised that the chicken recipe in question was probably the general's favorite so the chef who prepared it named it after him. I am supplying my wife's version of this dish for your reference.
General Tso's Chicken
Ingredients to fry the chicken:
1 egg white, beaten
4 Tablespoons cornstarch
2 Tablespoons flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 and 1/2 teaspoons vegetable oil
2 Tablespoons water
1 pound boneless chicken thigh meat, cut in two-inch pieces
2 cups vegetable oil for deep frying
Pre-preparation to fry the chicken:
1. Combine egg white, cornstarch, flour and salt.
2. Mix the one and a half teaspoons vegetable oil with the water, add it to the dry ingredients and mix well; then add the chicken meat and coat well.
3. Heat the rest of the oil to 350 degrees F and deep fry the chicken meat, a few at a time for a minute or a minute and a half on each side of until the meat is brown on the outside and juicy inside. Do not overcook. Drain on paper towels and set aside.
Ingredients for the sauce mixture:
3 Tablespoons sugar
3 Tablespoons thin soy sauce
2 Tablespoons dark soy sauce
1 Tablespoon fermented rice wine or cooking wine
1 Tablespoon white vinegar
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
1/2 cup chicken broth or water
2 Tbablespoons vegetable oil
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 Tablespoon shredded ginger
1 stalk scallion, chopped
6 red hot peppers, diced
Ingredients to to complete the dish:
Chicken and sauce as prepared above
1 cup broccoli flowerettes
Final Preparation
1. Combine sugar, soy sauces, fermented rice sauce, vinegar, and sesame oil in a bowl and mix well.
2. Combine cornstarch and chicken broth in another bowl and mix well.
3. Heat the oil in the wok to 375 degrees F. Add the pre-fried chicken pieces and keep turning them for one or two minutes, until each piece is heated through; and line a dish with paper towels and place the twice fried chicken on the paper to drain off any excess oil.
4. Pour out the oil form the work and wipe the wok clean with a paper towel. Reserve one and a half teaspoons of the oil.
5. Heat the wok and add the reserved oil, when hot add the garlic, and ginger. Keep stirring for a few seconds, add scallions and hot pepper, saute for one minute.
6. Add the first sauce mixture and mix well, then gently add the cornstarch broth and keep stirring until the sauce is thickened and turns translucent.
7. Add the chicken, mix well, and garnish with blackened broccoli florets which are placed around the chicken for color contrast. Serve.

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