Before getting to the food, let’s cover the dish’s history and the General, himself. I hadn’t realized the history and controversy surrounding this food. First, the dish is kind of named after Zuo Zongtang, a Chinese military leader and statesman who lived from 1812-1885. He was born in China’s Hunan Province. It’s ironic that the dish is generally unknown in the province, and not really part of Chinese food culture—now or ever.
The origin of the dish’s name is really cloudy, as is the origin of the dish, itself. I was unable to find definitive information on the name, but it the name in Chinese is a homonym of Zongtang’s name, which also means “ancestral meeting hall,” according to The Chinese Kitchen by Eileen Yin-Fei. There’s much more to it, but I don’t want to bore you.
As mentioned, the actual origin of the dish is also somewhat cloudy. Some sources say it came from a Taiwan-based chef named Pen Chang-Kuei, who basically exported the dish to North America. But a New York City-based chef named T.T. Wang also claimed to have invented the dish. He worked for Shun Lee Palaces restaurant in the early ‘70s.
Needless to say, the General Tsao’s Chicken that North Americans know is very likely quite different from the original version, which, if truly developed in Taiwan, would not have been particularly compatible with the relatively bland North American palate. And of course, most of this dish served in mainstream North American Chinese restaurants is just deep-fried chicken with pre-made, canned sauce dumped over it. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t taste good. It’s just that a sauce made from scratch is always going to be better than the chemically-enhanced—but convenient—canned stuff.
Anyway, there are many recipes for the baked version of this dish online, so, as usual, I read through several and synthesized them into what you see here.
What you’ll need for the chicken:
- Boneless chicken thighs, about a pound or two of them, cut into 2” pieces, or a little larger
- 1-2 beaten eggs
- Flour or cornstarch for dusting
- A combination of these spices in whatever proportions you wish (between 0.25 and 0.5 teaspoons for each one used is a good starting point)
- ground ginger (use the most of this)
- cayenne pepper
- black pepper
- garlic powder
- onion powder
What you’ll need for the sauce (this makes a lot of it; you can save and freeze what you don’t use):
- 0.5 cup water
- 0.5 cup sugar
- 6T soy sauce (a tablespoon more if you want it more salty)
- 0.5 cup rice wine (also called mirin)
- 2t toasted sesame oil (not sure why regular sesame oil wouldn’t work)
- 3T hot chili paste—this gives the dish a little heat (Sriracha or hot sauce could work in a pinch)
- 2-3 cloves minced garlic
- 2T grated ginger (powdered can be used in a pinch)
- 0.5 cups water, with 4t cornstarch diluted into it
- Sesame seeds, toasted or not, as a garnish
- Scallions thinly sliced, as a garnish
What to do:
There are a few different orders in which you can do the first few steps. I chose this method because it was the most efficient.
Lightly salt and pepper the chicken pieces.
Put all the dry ingredients for the chicken (not the eggs or chicken) into a shallow bowl and mix them well.
Dip each piece of chicken into the beaten egg, shake off the excess and dredge it in the flour/spice mixture before putting on an oiled baking sheet. Make sure it’s oiled well, or the chicken will surely stick.
Bake at 400 degrees F for about 15-20 minutes, duration depending on the size of the pieces. Don’t overcook and definitely don’t undercook. Undercooked chicken can be really dangerous.
You can make the sauce ahead of time, but it should take about as long to make as the chicken takes to cook.
Mix in a bowl the soy sauce, rice wine, sesame oil, chili paste, garlic and ginger.
Add a half-cup water to a saucepan and whisk in the sugar, bringing it to a low boil over medium heat. Let it cook like this until the sugar-water turns an amber color.
Mix in the sauce mixture to the sugar-water and let it simmer for about 5 more minutes. Now add the cornstarch diluted in water to the saucepan and let it simmer about 3 more minutes. At this point the sauce should be fairly thick. If not, let it simmer until it thickens to the degree you like.
Add the cooked chicken and mix it in until fully coated.
Just before serving, sprinkle the sesame seeds (blackened in this case) and sliced scallions (optional). This dish goes well over rice, or even served as a rice bowl.