Diana Kuan’s General Tso’s Chicken and the American Admiral

General Tso's Chicken

In 1953 Admiral Arthur W. Radford, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited Taiwan for talks with President Chiang Kai-Shek. The presidential palace chef, Peng Chang-Kuei (彭長貴), was asked to create a banquet to entertain the illustrious guest. After planning some traditional Hunan dishes, he decided to create a few new dishes for the menu. One of them was General Tso’s Chicken. Thus the world’s most famous Chinese dish was born.

This story was recounted in a television interview on Formosa TV in 2011 with Chef Peng. (The interview is available on You Tube in Mandarin.) Chef Peng, who followed the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-Sek to Taiwan after the defeat by the Communists, was originally from Hunan. He was one of many official chefs who fled the mainland in fear of communist persecution. He named this dish to honor a courageous Hunan general from the Qing Dynasty, and to show contempt for the other famous Hunan military man – Mao Tse Tung.

But the origin of General Tso’s Chicken has been a topic of discussion and speculation for many years. In the generally accepted version two New York City Hunan restaurants, opened by Chef TT Wang and restaurateur David Keh, claimed to have invented the dish in 1971. But Francis Lam reported in a Salon article that the chefs of these two restaurants broadly copied the menu of a Hunan restaurant in Taiwan run by Chef Peng. By the time Chef Peng moved to New York City a year later and opened his own restaurant, Peng Yuan, he was considered a latecomer and his original General Tso’s Chicken ended up being considered a second rate copy.

Chef Peng’s cooking is deeply rooted in the Hunan tradition that incorporates garlic, vinegar and spicy heat. His version of this dish is made with chicken fried with a very thin coating of starch and covered in a sauce that’s more savory than sweet. But it is the version by Chef TT Wang at his restaurant, Hunam, that ended up becoming the one beloved by Americans. The chicken is covered in a thicker crunchier coating and the sauce is sweeter.

It is also a similar version of Chef TT Wang’s General Tso’s Chicken that I discovered in Diana Kuan’s new cookbook called The Chinese Takeout Cookbook. Diana is a Chinese food blogger, who has been my friend since I started blogging. She blogs at Appetite for China and she is incredibly meticulous with her recipe development. I have used her recipes on numerous occasions with great success. So when I wanted General Tso’s Chicken, I whipped out her cookbook and made it myself instead of calling for takeout. To celebrate the Chinese New Year, Diana has generously offered to give a copy of her cookbook to one of my readers. You can have a chance to receive this cookbook if you submit a comment at the bottom of this post. I will randomly select one of you on March 8th.

You may have ordered General Tso’s Chicken countless times from your local Chinese takeout. But with this recipe from Diana Kuan you can make it at home just like Chef TT Wang made during the 1970’s when it was first introduced to the American public. It just won’t be the original one Admiral Radford ate in 1953.

Ingredients for General Tso's Chicken

Coating Chicken Cubes with Starch

Frying Chicken Pieces

Saucing General Tso's Chicken

  • General Tso’s Chicken (左宗棠雞)

    • Serves 4 as part of a multi-course meal, 2 to 3 as a main entree
    • 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs, sliced into 1-inch cubes
    • 1 1/2 cups cornstarch
    • 1/2 teaspoon salt
    • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
    • 3 cups peanut or vegetable oil for frying, plus 1 tablespoon for stir-frying
    • 8 dried whole red chilis, or substitute 1/4 teaspoon dried red chili flakes
    • 2 cloves garlic, minced
    • 1 teaspoon white sesame seeds, for garnish
    • Scallions, green parts thinly sliced, for garnish
    • Marinade:
    • 1 tablespoons soy sauce
    • 1 tablespoon Chinese rice wine or dry sherry
    • 2 egg whites
    • Sauce:
    • 1/4 cup chicken stock, or substitute water
    • 1 1/2 tablespoons tomato paste
    • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
    • 1 tablespoon rice vinegar
    • 1 teaspoon hoisin sauce
    • 1 teaspoon chili paste
    • 1 teaspoon sesame oil
    • 1 tablespoon sugar
    • 1 teaspoon cornstarch
    1. Prepare the marinade: In a large bowl, combine the soy sauce, rice wine, and egg whites. Coat the chicken to the marinade mixture and let sit for 10 minutes.
    2. Prepare the sauce: In a small bowl, combine the chicken stock, tomato paste, sugar, soy sauce, rice vinegar, hoisin sauce, chili paste, sesame oil, sugar, and the 1 teaspoon of cornstarch. Stir until the sugar and cornstarch are dissolved. Set the sauce aside.
    3. In a large bowl or deep plate, toss the 1 1/2 cups cornstarch with the salt and pepper. Coat the marinated chicken in the cornstarch and shake off any excess before frying.
    4. Heat the 3 cups of peanut or vegetable oil in your wok until it registers 350°F on an instant-read oil thermometer. Working in 2 or 3 batches, add the first batch of chicken cubes and fry until golden brown on the outside and cooked through, about 4 to 5 minutes. Remove the chicken with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Repeat with the rest of the chicken.
    5. Drain the oil into a heatproof container and save for discarding. Wipe the wok with a paper towel to remove any brown bits, but don’t wash.
    6. Reheat the wok or skillet over medium-high heat. Add another 1 tablespoon of oil and swirl to coat the base and sides. Add the dried chilis and garlic to the wok and stir-fry until just fragrant, about 20 seconds. Pour in the sauce mixture and stir until thickened, about 1 to 2 minutes.
    7. Return the chicken to the wok and stir well to coat with sauce. Transfer the chicken to a serving dish. Garnish with white sesame seeds and scallions. Serve with white rice and vegetables.
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21 Comments

  1. Michael
    Posted February 22, 2013 at 5:51 am | Permalink

    Thanks Kian. Yet another twist on the true origin of General Tso’s I didn’t know about!

  2. Ana Chiu
    Posted February 22, 2013 at 7:12 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the chance to win the cookbook! I’m also a huge fan of Diana’s blog.

  3. Erin
    Posted February 22, 2013 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    Tomato paste–interesting. I’m going to make this over the weekend.

  4. Posted February 22, 2013 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

    I cannot wait to make this dish. I’ve been disappointed with this dish at the local eateries and look forward to enjoying this recipe! Thanks for the back story too. Very interesting history.

  5. Posted February 22, 2013 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

    Ooh. general Tso’s Chicken is one of my guilty pleasures. This looks delicious!

  6. Lee Fielder
    Posted February 22, 2013 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the recipe and story. Looks much better than local restaurant versions.

  7. triplepoint
    Posted February 22, 2013 at 9:51 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been a fan of your recipes, and perhaps diana’s more so (since she has been blogging longer), and I am grateful that you both have been willing to share your knowledge with us. I have gotten spoiled, visiting China often, and seldom go to restaurants here. Instead, I roll my own–using recipes from you, diana, and sunflower (where has she been since a year ago?), and of course Fushia Dunlop’s wonderful books.

    I hope to add yours and diana’s to my collection. Thanks for your work here!

  8. stacey
    Posted February 23, 2013 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    We moved from a metropolitan area to a small town in 2011 where we have yet to find good chinese take out. I have been trying to learn to make our favorite dishes ever since. This one is on my ‘to make’ list. Thank you!

  9. Posted February 24, 2013 at 7:35 am | Permalink

    Hello! I recently just started a youtube Korean food channel, EasyKoreanFood, where you can learn how to make fast & easy Korean food! It would mean the world to me if you could check it out because I’m just starting out! Thanks!

  10. Terese chiang
    Posted February 24, 2013 at 7:45 am | Permalink

    Love your site and your recipes!

  11. Lily
    Posted February 24, 2013 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    hm… need an oil thermometer and rice wine. sounds like an interesting book :)

    • Posted February 24, 2013 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

      If you use vegetable oil (soybean oil) from the market you can test the temperature by observing if the oil is beginning to smoke. The smoking point temperature for soybean oil is around 350 F. As for rice wine you can substitute it with dry cooking sherry. They have very similar flavor.

  12. Lorenz
    Posted March 5, 2013 at 8:17 am | Permalink

    To the ones out there who don’t have chili paste in their pantry like me: How do you substitute it? Just chili powder with some oil?

    Cooking-weekend, I’m coming!

    • Posted March 5, 2013 at 11:00 am | Permalink

      Yes Lorenz, chili powder and some oil would work well. Or you can just put the chili powder to the level of heat of your liking.

      • Lorenz
        Posted March 7, 2013 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

        Thanks. So this chili paste is nothing specially treated (i.e. fermented etc.) giving no specific taste but “spicyness”?
        Great blog, by the way. With your red cooked pork, I started my Chinese cooking “career” two years ago.

        • Posted March 8, 2013 at 10:45 am | Permalink

          Commercial chili pastes often have other spices added. So they taste a little richer when you use in the recipe. But it is certainly not going to break the recipe if you just simply use some chili powder.

          Thank you for your kind words and support!

  13. Huei
    Posted March 7, 2013 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

    Thank you Kian for all your wonderful Chinese recipes. Was just checking in for your fish paste recipe when I saw this!! Can’t wait to make it. This is definitely one of those sinful delights.

  14. Posted March 9, 2013 at 1:08 am | Permalink

    I’ve picked a winner for this giveaway. So comments entered after this will not be entered into the giveaway pool.

  15. Joseph Cercy
    Posted June 5, 2014 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

    I made this yesterday. I liked it very much. The balace of sweet, sour and salty in the sauce is very good.

  16. Jennifer
    Posted August 26, 2014 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    I made this last night. It was awesome combination. My American husband loves it and he said better than our local restaurant! Thank you so much for this great recipe.

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