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.

Tasting the Conspiracy, item L17: Hunan Chicken

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

Continuing through the named classics, we come upon one that doesn’t have quite the cachet of Kung Pao or General Tso’s, but is still on most menus.

Hunan Chicken

Don’t be deceived by the visible red pepper flakes; this one’s really quite mild.

What exactly is this dish? Hunan Chicken is a dish with an ostensibly spicy, cornstarch-thickened sauce built on a base of soy and garlic and other brown-sauce base ingredients. Vegetables are plentiful, and typically include large chunks of green peppers, baby corn, water chestnuts, and bamboo shoots. It’s typically less spicy than Chicken with Garlic Sauce, spicier than Chicken with Mixed Vegetables, and has a thicker sauce than both, but clearly belongs to the same general class of dish.

How authentically Chinese is it? There is such a thing as Hunanese cuisine, of course. Hunan Province is in the southeast of China, and is notable, like Sichuan cuisine, for liberal use of spicy peppers, but it uses smoked meats more than Sichuan, and the characteristic numbing element of Sichuan peppercorns much less. The dishes also tend to be less dry, with stewing, braising, and hotpot taking the forefront over dry-frying as a cooking technique. How’s all this impact Hunan’s eponymous Chinese-American dish? Naturally, one can’t easily map it onto a classic traditional Hunanese dish, making its provenance rather dubious, and of course the timidity of Chinese-American food tends to mute its more distinctive elements: spiciness is typically kept way down (although this can vary), and this sauce makes no real use of a smoky or dry-cured flavor. I haven’t delved deeply, but I’d venture this variant of a basic brown-sauce stirfry was pioneered in the US, and that its primary defining feature (red pepper flakes, and a saucier presentation than is typical) reminded its creator of some features of Hunanese braised chicken, so they just gave it the name as a quick and dirty shorthand.

Is it any good? Eh, it’s OK. I’m always underwhelmed by supposedly spicy Chinese-American food, and this was no exception. On the chicken itself, the thickness of the sauce rendered it, to my eyes, inferior to the more nuanced approach of Chicken with Garlic Sauce’s thin sauce suitable for flavoring without becoming a textural element in its own right. It feels to me like it falls in a middle ground between several other, more successful implementations of similar dishes and I can’t think of a good reason to eat it in preference to those other dishes unless you really like the specific vegetable blend in Hunan Chicken.

How does it complement the rice? I will hedge on my judgment of cornstarch-intensive thick sauces enough to assert that they do interface with rice pretty well, forming a coating layer which enhances the rice more effectively, perhaps, than thinner sauces which cling less effectively. The sauce from this dish on the rice did feel more satisfactory and more effective than thinner brown sauces did.

Tasting the Conspiracy, item L16: Kung Po Chicken

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

This one’s one of those perennial classics, because we’re finally into the “named special dishes” end of the lunch menu.

Kung Po Chicken

Finally, something a bit spicy!

What exactly is this dish? Kung Po (or kung pao, as it’s usually written) chicken is a dish which open-endedly in Chinese-American cisine, is a spicy dish of diced chicken with peanuts. Pretty much every aspect of the dish except having chicken, spiciness, and peanuts seems to be moderately fluid. The sauce is usually reddish and has a certain caramelized character, with significant saltiness and light sweetness. Double Dragon’s Kung Po notably contains carrots (a fairly standard inclusion) and green pepper (a less common addition), and the chicken is stirfried (other variants have a somewhat crustier sear on the chicken. Nowhere is it very spicy, because fast-food Chinese isn’t, as a rule, but there’s a little kick of heat to it.

How authentically Chinese is it? There is absolutely a real Sichuan dish sharing its name. The Gongbao (宫保) was an imperial official rank of the Qing dynasty, and this particular dish is supposedly named after a notable holder of that rank, the governor Ding Baozhen (丁寶楨). This is all nineteenth-century lore, so it’s not exactly in the misty and mythical past. This dish’s “traditional” bonafides are thus actually quite well established and the prevalence of a dish by this name in China certainly justifies it as not a purely Chinese-American creation. That said, the version common in America and other places abroad diverges pretty sharply from the traditional Chinese preparation in its flavor profile. Chinese kung pao chicken is typically a lot spicier, and defined, like much of the cuisine of Sichuan, by the citrusy, anaesthetic flavor profile of Sichuan peppercorn.

Is it any good? I liked it well enough! There’s good textural interplay among the carrots, chicken, and peanuts, and even though it’s not very spicy, the lightly smoky sauce has enough fire in it to feel more interesting than the generality of options ff the menu. The green peppers are a somewhat dubious choice, I’ll admit, and I’m not sold on that, but otherwise it’s one of my favorite dishes so far.

How does it complement the rice? This sauce is thinner than the gloppy, cornstarch-intensive sauces but stretches to enhance a fair bit of the rice. It helps that it’s more flavorful than most sauces and thus a little of it goes further in giving fried rice a little bit of variety.

Tasting the Conspiracy, item L15: Shrimp with Cashew Nuts

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

Out of lo mein variants and into (slightly) original territory.

Shrimp with Cashew Nuts

Lotsa tiny crunchy things!

What exactly is this dish? As the name implies, this dish contains shrimp and cashews. It also contains a lot of over veggies diced pretty small: bits of carrot and celery, baby corn, and an occasional chunk of water chestnut. The sauce seems to be more or less a generic brown soy-and-ginger creation akin to that found on the other dishes which don’t specify a sauce (compare with, for instance, Shrimp with Mixed Vegetable).

How authentically Chinese is it? With these basic brown sauce presentations, it’s hard for me to imagine that they’re not at least plausible as simple home-cooked dishes: if you’ve got a wok and the usual array of Chinese sauces and spices, throwing a few veggies and proteins into a mild sauce is an idea so straightforward it hardly deserves to be dignified as a “dish” in its own right. But certainly all of the ingredients and techniques in this one are plausibly Chinese (although other iconic cashew-based shrimp dishes tend to be from other parts of East Asia: there are highly regarded Thai and Malaysian dishes with the same name in English and quite different flavors).

Is it any good? Eh, I’ve talked about brown-sauce preparations and there’s a certain sameyness to them, but this one stands out on a textural level. The meat itself has that snappy surface tension which, among stir-friable proteins, only shrimp has, and this plays well with the other elements which have a pleasing crunch to them. There’s no sense of mushy overdone blandness to this one on a tactile level: the individual components retain a great deal of individuality and make it a sensation rather distinct from the undifferentiated mass of stir-fries.

How does it complement the rice? It’s a fairly thin and not voluminous sauce: the ingredients in this don’t “sweat” as much as some other preparations do so it doesn’t quite stretch to flavor the rice much.

Exploring the Conspiracy, item L14c: Shrimp Lo Mein

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

Sick of lo mein yet? I konw I am! Shrimp lo mein is a lot like any other sort and the comments are mostly the same. But for a change of pace, I went to Double Dragon 2, the Germantown Square restaurant’s evil twin down south of campus. Rumor had it that DD2 was the institution responsible for Double Dragon’s signage disclaiming any affiliation with other restaurants of that name. Anyways, long story short, this is from a different place with a somewhat worse reputation, where the combos are a little pricier, and instead of coming with an egg roll, come with a soft drink and a crab rangoon.

Shrimp Lo Mein

In the interest of fully documenting the adventure to a new place, I put the crab rangoon up in the top center. The soft drink is not pictured.

What exactly is this dish? Small shrimp stir-fried in a tangle of round wheat noodles, with a brown sauce that’s reduced down to be basically dry. Veggies are sparse and light: bits of scallion, onion, and carrot are among the more prominent.

How authentically Chinese is it? Well, lo mein (捞面) is a real variety of noodle and a dish made with them, but in the Cantonese tradition it’s apparently some kind of deconstructed soup, with the noodles served on the side and dipped into the soup. The Chinese-American stir-fry dish is a wholly local creation, although it’s not entirely sui generis: it’s not too far afield from, say, Shanghai fried noodles. I’m a bit suspicious of any direct ancestry there though, since Chinese-American cuisine derives more from the culture of Guangzhou than Shanghai.

Is it any good? In this particular combination, it’s not really, and for reasons which can’t actually be laid at the feet of the dish itself. This form is a lunch combo with fried rice (or white rice on demand), and there’s no two ways about it: noodles with a side of rice is kind of aggressively starchy. Most of these lunch-combo dishes are driven by protein and veggies, and while shrimp certainly has a toothsome texture and a reasonably strong flavor, it also tends to be used more sparingly than other proteins and, in this particular setting, is swamped entirely by the noodles. All in all, this combo taken as a whole is something of a carbohydrate monster with only moderate relief from the bland starchiness. Noodles alone would actually work OK, in a not very aggressive way, but it’s hard to work up enthusiasm for either the main or the side when they have a certain indistinguishable cereal aspect. In considering this particular incarnation of the dish, it’s worthwhile noting the differences from the more familiar Double Dragon (1) presentation: the rangoon, to my eyes, is a less pleasing appetizer than an egg roll, but opinions may differ there; more substantively, the fried rice had bits of either raw or undercooked onion in it, which still had crunch and the sharp raw-onion flavor. In this particular pile of indifference, that sharp flavor and crunch was somewhat welcome, but it’s still a bit irregular and unnerving.

How does it complement the rice? Er, see above. The rice entirely upsets the balance of the meal and turns it from a reasonably tasty tangle of fried noodles into a grim deathmarch through the Land of Starch. The noodles themselves are, while not bone-dry, only thinly coated with a sauce which does not really transfer onto the rice at all.

Tasting the Conspiracy, item L14b: Beef Lo Mein

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

Unsurprisingly, beef lo mein is pretty similar to chicken lo mein and most of the comments below are the same as those for the chicken.

Beef Lo Mein

Yup, looks a lot like any other lo mein.

What exactly is this dish? Strips of beef stir-fried in a tangle of round wheat noodles, with a brown sauce that’s reduced down to be basically dry. Veggies are sparse and light: bits of scallion, onion, and carrot are among the more prominent.

How authentically Chinese is it? Well, lo mein (捞面) is a real variety of noodle and a dish made with them, but in the Cantonese tradition it’s apparently some kind of deconstructed soup, with the noodles served on the side and dipped into the soup. The Chinese-American stir-fry dish is a wholly local creation, although it’s not entirely sui generis: it’s not too far afield from, say, Shanghai fried noodles. I’m a bit suspicious of any direct ancestry there though, since Chinese-American cuisine derives more from the culture of Guangzhou than Shanghai

Is it any good? In this particular combination, it’s not really, and for reasons which can’t actually be laid at the feet of the dish itself. This form is a lunch combo with fried rice (or white rice on demand), and there’s no two ways about it: noodles with a side of rice is kind of aggressively starchy. Most of these lunch-combo dishes are driven by protein and veggies, and giving credit where it’s due, the beef is less aggressively bland in texture or flavor than the chicken. Nonetheless, here it’s really in a pretty lopsided balance with the noodles. All in all, this combo taken as a whole is something of a carbohydrate monster with only moderate relief from the bland starchiness. Noodles alone would actually work OK, in a not very aggressive way, but it’s hard to work up enthusiasm for either the main or the side when they have a certain indistinguishable cereal aspect.

How does it complement the rice? Er, see above. The rice entirely upsets the balance of the meal and turns it from a reasonably tasty tangle of fried noodles into a grim deathmarch through the Land of Starch. The noodles themselves are, while not bone-dry, only thinly coated with a sauce which does not really transfer onto the rice at all.