Tasting the Conspiracy, item L19: General Gao’s Chicken

If it’s not clear what this is or why I’m doing it, check out the intro post.

The most iconic Chinese-American dish today, General Tso’s (or Gao’s, or Tao’s, or Zuo’s, or other variant orthographies, sometimes even simply called “General”) Chicken is also the most well-researched.

General Tso's Chicken

Here comes the General!

What exactly is this dish? A sweet, cornstarch-thickened sauce, heated up by dried chilis, smothers chunks of breaded, crispy fried chicken. Veggies are rare and relegated to the purpose of decorative accents (broccoli being the most common).

How authentically Chinese is it? I would think, to eat it, that it isn’t, of course. It’s sweet, not all that spicy, goopy… it feels very highly designed to American tastes. However, there’s a whole damn documentary tracing its origins (and peripherally the origins of Chinese-American cuisine as a whole), which makes a compelling argument that a dish of the same name and with similar construction hails from Taiwan. General Gao was a real person (左宗棠, typically Romanized as Zuo Zongtang), and a politically incredibly important one in 19th century China. There’s tons of stuff named after him in China, especially in his native Hunan Province and Xiang river valley; that a dish is named after him is somewhat unsurprising.

Is it any good? I might get shunned by the cool kids in Chinese-American food fancier circles, but I gotta say, it doesn’t hit my sweet spot. Or more to the point, it’s way too sweet to hit my spot. There are textural things in there which are good, like the crispy-fried chicken, with a crunchy shell but not with the heavy breading of, say, Sweet and Sour Chicken. I’m not sure a gloppy, cornstarch-thickened sauce goes great with the style, particularly as sweet as it is; it somewhat overwhelms the chicken’s good points with its aggressiveness and sheer volume. I might relent in this view if it were spicier, but it really isn’t, and it’s straight-up cloying. A thinner sauce with more zip and less sugar could preserve the essential elements of this dish and make it a lot better.

How does it complement the rice? The sauce, as mentioned above, is thick. This makes it easy to blend into the rice but something of a textural element on the rice in its own right; added to the fact that it’s so sugary I actually found it not nearly as satisfactory as a simple soy sauce would be but your mileage may vary on this.

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Tasting the Conspiracy, item L18: Chicken with Broccoli

If it’s not clear what this is or why I’m doing it, check out the intro post.

Right when we thought we were into named classics, we veer back into unimaginative brown-sauce creations which are, themselves, inferior remixes of other unimaginative brown-sauce creations. Since the dish is unimaginative, so is the review going to be (lifted largely from the review of L3: Beef with Broccoli).

Chicken with Broccoli

It’s just like beef with broccoli, but now with blander protein!

What exactly is this dish? Thin slices of chicken are stir-fried with broccoli in a fairly generic “brown sauce” which is mostly soy sauce with a bit of oyster sauce and ginger. Thinner constituents like wine and broth might also be present.

How authentically Chinese is it? There are apparently some quite similar Chinese dishes. The sauce is based on a few fairly standard constituents used in Chinese cooking, and a stir-fry of a meat with a single vegetable is a pretty straightforward style. The nearest progenitors to this dish in China, however, would tend to use considerably more ginger and, instead of the tightly-floreted broccoli crowns in vogue in the West, would use a blend of florets, stalks, and leafs from a more loose-headed brassica like rapini, broccolini, or gai lan.

Is it any good? I’ll duplicate the comments from a previous broccoli-in-brown-sauce dish below, but the elephant in the room of course is that there are three dishes which have more or less the same name and differ mostly on protein. Beef is the best, and the classic, and its flavor and texture just harmonizes well with broccoli. Chicken (which is what was in this particular incarnation) is probably the worst, because it’s bland and delivers little in terms of texture or flavor to counterpoint the broccoli. That said, this, like its more popular cousin, is basically Chinese-American by the numbers, hitting those salt-and-glutamate sweet spots that soy sauce gives and in a sauce which is basically inoffensive but interesting enough to enliven the proteins it’s on. The broccoli was cooked just enough to take off the textural and flavor elements of rawness without being defeated and wilted. I would wager the extent to which the broccoli is cooked in this dish is really what ends up separating a good takeout from a bad one; broccoli that is raw or overcooked can foul up this dish faster than any flaws in the sauce.

How does it complement the rice? It’s a good sauce but not one provided in great quantities; chicken with broccoli is a moderately “dry” dish but not as dry as the beef version, probably because chicken has a higher moisture content. There aren’t great sloshing bucketfuls of sauce around to put on the rice, but what there is suffices: it isn’t supposed to be stewy, and this has about the right level of sauciness.