Wednesday, December 5, 2012

UnRecipe: General Tsort-of's Chicken

Don't deny it. You have an illicit love for Americanized Chinese food. For as much food-snobbery you have over knowing the origins of obscure ethnic cuisine and how ingredients were introduced to different cultures, when you're in a typical American-style Chinese restaurant, your eyes glaze over with junkie-like glee for the dishes that have never set foot in the Asian Motherland. You even get excited when the fortune cookie shows up, because you love saying, " bed" after everyone reads their fortune aloud.

Team Americanized Chinese Food, Eff Yeah! - Photo by Wasabi Prime
My favorites have always been the following: Orange Chicken with its alarmingly traffic cone orange-colored glaze, Mongolian Beef that's so spicy that it makes me sweat until I weep blood, and of course, General Tso's Chicken. None of these dishes have ever seen the shores of China, and while they may have distant cousin-once-removed connections to meals from the homeland, the food we eat at restaurants with a combination of "panda," "bamboo" and "garden" in the name are pretty much as American as "Honey Boo Boo." I can't quite bring myself to buy the premade sauce that you can drizzle over fried chicken, instantly making it Orange Chicken, and every time I make a version of it at home, it's dull, given my lack of weird-ass preservatives and dyes that make that sauce so fantastic and disturbing. I can do a version of Mongolian Beef at home, which is basically beef + crazy spices = Bring on the Hurt. But General Tso's Chicken is a marvelously complex mixture of sweet, savory seasonings and textures, with the crispy fried chicken pieces and a mixture of vegetables. Most places don't even bother with the vegetables, it's just crispy chicken tossed with a spicy sweet sauce, but for an at-home version, I upped the produce level.

I cheat on what would arguably be the most important part, which is the fried chicken. I do a light coating of seasoned cornstarch and then do a pan-fry in a wok, just searing the outside of bite-sized chicken chunks until they're browned and crispy. But mixed in with a bunch of vegetables like carrots, onions and green beans, the lack of crispy chicken texture is negligible, plus I add in chopped peanuts at the end, to give it extra crunch. My focus is the sauce, which has to have that right balance of sweet-savory with a little bit of sour. I don't like General Tso sauces that are all sweet, like a sugary teriyaki sauce -- way too one-note. I made a sauce that was a mix of soy sauce, Korean kochujang (red pepper paste), rice wine vinegar, a little sugar, and chopped ginger and garlic. UnRecipe strikes again because I mixed the sauce and just tasted as I went, adding as I mixed to get the balance I wanted, but those were the ingredients to push-pull and design your own General Tso-Tasty sauce. A little cornstarch whisked in at the end, and into the wok-sizzling vegetables and meat it went to coat and tighten up from the heat.

Non-fried chicken and whatever vegetables you have on-hand. - Photos by Wasabi Prime
It wasn't the exact version of the beloved Americanized Chinese restaurant dish we all hate to admit we love, but it was a fair replica for at-home enjoyment. For as much at-home versions of food that's already been bastardized plenty enough, I never want to make a perfect version at home. Why rob myself of that perfect experience of eating all those culturally co-opted delicacies in an overly-decorated restaurant of bamboo and gold dragons, and the joy of saying, " bed" after everyone reads their fortune? I'm not going to deny my love for what is essentially American food -- I'm going to get my fluorescent day-glow orange chicken and fried spicy goodness that General Tso never once laid eyes on, and I'm going to enjoy every damn bite.

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