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, "...in 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, "...in 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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