Sunday, May 26, 2013

General Tso's Chicken

Why would a blog dedicated to "Traditional Chinese Recipes" feature General Tao's Chicken, a dish virtually unknown in China?   For one thing, one of the minimal definitions of tradition is "an artistic or literary method or style established by an artist, writer, or movement, and subsequently followed by others." General Tso's certainly qualifies on that basis, since this dish is served everywhere in the world by Chinese chefs in Chinese restaurants--everywhere, in fact, except China, and with some surprising degree of consistency.  Further, if we think of the mainland as the "go to" authority, consider that General Tso's Chicken was invented in China, by a Chinese chef, and while it faded from view in Mainland China, it made its way from there to Taipei, to the United States, and evolved, as most traditions do, to become the famous dish we know today.   (I'd venture to say this may all be a moot point anyway, since the ever-wealthier China absorbs so many cultural trends of the West, so the worldwide popularity of General Tso's Chicken will someday make it as much a traditional dish in China as it is here.) 

The history of this dish has been thoroughly described by at least two authors.  Fuchsia Dunlop gives an excellent account, and a recipe for the unsweetened Hunanese version, originated by chef Peng Chang-kuei, in her excellent book, Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook.  Similarly, Jennifer 8. Lee describes with delicious humor her search for the original General Tso's Chicken in The Fortune Cookie Chronicles.

The attraction of this dish is doubtless in its simplicity of flavor and texture-- the chicken is chewy/crisp on the outside, moist on the inside, all drenched in a dark, spicy, sweet and tangy sauce.  The secret to a chewy/crisp exterior is double frying, utilized by Chinese chefs in a number of dishes where crispness of an otherwise moist item is desired.

1 1/4 lb boneless chicken thigh
1 heap Tablespoon minced garlic 
1 Tablespoon minced ginger
2 Green onions
4 - 6 chilis, cut into 3/4" lengths (Optional)

Chicken Marinade:

1 tsp dark soy
1 Tab light soy
1 Tab Shao Xing wine or dry sherry
1 Tab cornstarch
 1 egg white

In a bowl, appx 2/3 cup cornstarch
1/2 tsp baking soda. (The baking soda assists with the Maillard browning reaction which cornstarch is otherwise resistant to)

3/4 cup chicken stock
1 1/2 Tab sugar
1 heap tsp brown sugar
1 TAB rice vinegar
2 TAB light soy
1 tsp dark soy

1 Tab rice wine

Cornstarch slurry (see thickening sauces in Technique)

Sesame oil, slivered red pepper or carrot for garnish

The following can be done ahead of time: wash and trim out tendon and large fat deposits from chicken thigh pieces and cut into chunks approximately 2" square or so.   Dry the cut meat;  in a bowl, mix very thoroughly with the marinade to evenly coat. In another med large bowl, combine cornstarch and soda and set aside.

Preheat deep fryer to 375º to prepare for the first frying.

Dredge marinated chicken pieces in the cornstarch/soda mixture and shake off extra coating, setting aside these aside until all the chicken is battered.  Lower pieces carefully into the 375º oil.  Fry approximately 3 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Remove to a platter with paper towels or drain rack, separate, and allow to cool.

Meanwhile, mince garlic and ginger.  Mince the white portion of the green onion, and chop the green portion separately into 1/8" rings.   Prepare the sauce, set aside in a bowl, and prepare cornstarch slurry.  

When the fried chicken pieces are completely cool to the touch, you are ready for the 2nd frying, but first you'll make the sauce. As the deep fry oil heats to 375º,  heat a wok on med/high, swirl in 2 Tab of peanut oil, and when the oil is hot, add the minced ginger, garlic and onion and stir fry a few seconds.  Add the chilies, if using, and then splash in the tablespoon of wine.  Add the sauce mixture, and as soon as it begins to boil, slowly add cornstarch slurry while stirring ingredients until the sauce thickens to the desired consistency.  If using an electric stove, take the wok off the heat until the burner cools to low before returning; the sauce should remain in the wok on a very low heat while the chicken is fried a second time.

With the deep fry oil at 375º carefully lower the chicken into the oil and cook for another 3 or 4 minutes.  Remove with skimmer or bamboo strainer, gently shake off excess oil, and place directly into sauce.  This may require two or three dips into the oil.  Now toss the chicken in the hot sauce, remove to a serving platter and garnish with sesame oil, green onion shreds, or other garnish.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Chive and Prawn Dumpling

Here is another delicious mainstay of the tea ritual known as dim sum, and belongs to the class of dumplings enfolded with a wheat starch wrapper.  The name in Cantonese is Gao Choi Ha Gao 韭菜虾饺, or simply Gao Choi Gau (In Mandarin, Jiu Cai xia Bao).  You will find this steamed dumpling in almost every dim sum restaurant, although it will sometimes be formed into hockey-puck sized packets, and fried.  In either case you'll know it by the intensely green vegetable showing through the translucent wrapper.  

Like cilantro,  Chinese garlic chives,  jiu cai might strike some as an acquired taste.  Once accustomed to its sharp and fragrant flavor, however, it becomes an essential sensation for lovers of dim sum.


12 oz prawn, peeled and  deveined
12 oz garlic chives  
1 egg white
2 med clove garlic, minced 
1/4 rounded tsp white pepper
2 rounded tsp cornstarch
1 Tablespoon plus 1 tsp Shao Xing wine
1 tsp sesame oil
1 rounded tsp sugar
1 tsp salt


1       Cup      wheat starch
1/2    Cup      tapioca Starch
1       Tab       Peanut oil
1/4    tsp         salt
1       Cup       boiling water

Dice half the prawns fine (appx 1/8"), and the other half large (appx 1/2") and set aside in a mixing bowl.  Garlic chives are sold in bundles at Chinese groceries, and known by the names  jiu cai  (Mandarin),  and gao choi (Cantonese); cut off 1 or 2 inches of the thickest (root) end, then chop into 1/2" sections.  On med heat, Stir fry in a wok or sauté pan until wilted, about a minute.  Allow to cool before adding to the prawns.
After adding the cooled chives to prawn,  combine the remaining filling ingredients and mix very thoroughly with a rubber spatula.  Refrigerate.

Sift the starches and salt into a mixing bowl; form a well in the powders, then add the oil.  Pour the boiling water, measured with a pre-heated measuring cup, into the well and stir quickly but carefully with a rubber spatula.  Scrape the sides as you mix, to incorporate all the ingredients.  Form a ball of dough.  As soon as you can handle the dough, knead it vigorously for a full 3 minutes, occasionally compressing the ball forcefully as you knead.  (Wheat starch dough is firm to the gentle touch, but extremely malleable).  This enthusiastic kneading is to insure that the starches and water and oil are smoothly and completely incorporated.  Divide the dough into 3 pieces and let it rest in a plastic bag for 10 minutes or so.  All the foregoing steps can be done ahead of time.

When ready to make dumplings, prepare your steamer with a parchment paper liner for the steamer tray—punch or cut 1/4” holes randomly in the paper to allow steam to pass through.  Alternatively, liberally oil the steamer tray or use vegetable leaf to ensure the wheat starch wrapper does not stick after steaming.  Allow the steamer water to boil, with the basket separate, ready to load dumplings.

Compress each ball of starch into a smooth, round shape and then roll on a flat surface to make a 1” dia.   Rope.  Put two ropes back in the plastic bag and cut the remaining into 1” segments.  To make the skins: working on a high density polyethylene cutting board, place a piece of 4” square piece of parchment paper over the segment and flatten it one at a time with rolling pin, Chinese cleaver, or tortilla press (works great), making sure the skin is a uniform thickness of between 1/16” and 1/8".  This disk will be slightly irregular in shape; you can proceed with making the dumplings and trim the excess with scissors if necessary, or cut the skin now to appx. 3-3/4"diam. (Traditionally, Gao Choi Gau is much larger than Ha Gau, which uses a circle 3-1/4" or less--) Use a cookie cutter, empty tin can or similar round object .  You can make the skins all at once, if they are kept covered with plastic or damp cloth at room temperature.  

The procedure for stuffing the dumplings can be the same as for pot stickers, but note that wheat starch dough is very delicate, and care must be taken not to puncture or tear the skins while filling.  (Dim Sum chefs occasionally vary the pleat design of dumplings, and you may want to experiment with your own method).

Place the dumplings in the lined steamer tray, but do not allow them to touch each other.  Put over the steamer, and cook for 6 to 7 minutes.  Serve in the steamer or place on a serving dish when cool enough to handle.  An accompanying dipping sauce is a nice touch, as is tea.