A few weeks ago, during the school vacation week, we took a road trip to visit family and friends along the mid-Atlantic states. One of our stops was to see our niece and her family, and because she had just returned from an insanely busy work trip, we told her we would take them out to dinner.
“Do you like Chinese?” her text read. “It’s not authentic, but Micah [age 7] likes it and that’s half the battle.”
We have all known picky eaters, and Micah quite happily enjoyed many cups of tea and an enormous bowl of wonton soup, mostly eating the wontons! And the four adults all enjoyed our food as well, “authentic” or not. In fact, I believe that when we suggest that Chinese American cuisine is not “authentic,” in some way, we minimize, or even deny, the immigrant experience.
Throughout human history, we have moved over land and sea, often escaping poverty or persecution, natural or human-made disasters. Often the new place does not have all the same foodstuffs, so recipes change and morph into something new. How immigrants have adapted their cuisine to local ingredients and local palates is important for their survival in their new homes. In this way, I feel our dinner that night was “authentic” to the Chinese American experience.
One of our dishes that evening was General Tso’s Chicken, clearly not a recipe brought from China. There is even a documentary, "The Search for General Tso," which explores the history of the dish and of Chinese immigration. After we watched the movie several years ago, we wanted to make the dish, and so began the search for various interpretations. In one cookbook, written by a first-generation Chinese-American, the author offers her family’s version using strawberry preserves (which was delicious, but not our favorite).
After a bit of trial and error and revisions, we’ve come up with a version we love and that is suited to our home kitchen. Although this recipe doesn’t have any steps that are particularly challenging, it does take some prep work. So we always make a double batch to have leftovers for another dinner and for lunches to take to work, even though it loses its crispiness.
Chinese cuisine is not a monolith, as there are clear distinctions among regions, such as Cantonese, Szechuan, and so on. And I believe we can add Chinese-American to that list. I’ve recently been reading "Parwana: Recipes and Stories from an Afghan Kitchen," an Afghani cookbook by Durkhanai Ayubi, whose family migrated to Australia. She writes, “Food was never static, but an ever-evolving way to stay anchored to our history while filling our sails with hopes for tomorrow.”
GENERAL TSO’S CHICKEN
Serves 2, plus some leftovers, maybe
Prep bowl No. 1:
3-4 scallions chopped into 1/2-inch lengths
2 garlic cloves minced or put through a press
6 dried whole dried red chilis (Asian if you can find them)
Zest from 1 orange, removed in thick strips with a vegetable peeler
Prep bowl No. 2:
1/4 - 1/3 cup sugar
1-2 tablespoons chopped ginger (not grated, which gets lost in the finished dish)
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
Prep measuring cup (or anything with a spout):
4 tablespoons chicken broth
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
1/3 cup soy sauce
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon peanut oil
1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 egg, beaten
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon sugar
Pinch white pepper
1 cup cornstarch, or more as needed
1-2 cups vegetable oil
Prep bowl No. 3 (to be mixed just before using):
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1/4 cup water
Optional: Previously steamed or roasted vegetables such as broccoli, sugar snap peas, or cauliflower.
In a large bowl, toss the chicken with the egg, salt, sugar and white pepper. Toss with cornstarch, 1/4 cup at a time, until well-coated. (This is most easily accomplished with two people — one tossing the chicken and the other adding 1/4 cup of cornstarch at a time.)
Heat 1-2 cups of vegetable oil in a wok or deep skillet to about 375 F. Drop chicken pieces into the oil in batches so as not to crowd the pan. Fry until golden brown and they begin to float, about 3 minutes. Remove from oil and allow to cool while frying the next batch. Once all the chicken has been fried, re-fry the pieces a second time, again in batches, until golden brown, about 2 minutes more per batch. Remove to a paper towel-lined plate to drain.
Pour off all but 2-3 tablespoons of oil from the wok. Add the contents of prep bowl No. 1 and cook for a minute or two until the garlic begins to brown and the chilis brighten. Add the contents of prep bowl No. 2, bring to a boil and cook for about 3 minutes. Using prep bowl No. 3, dissolve the 2 teaspoons of cornstarch in 1/4 cup water, stir into the boiling sauce, and allow to thicken for about a minute.
Add chicken back to the wok, along with optional vegetables if using, and mix thoroughly for a minute or two to combine and warm through. Serve with rice.