April 10, 2014 Leave your thoughts
Wohoo! We’re making Chinese food! And it’s not even Chinese!
You can even put the leftovers in one of those red boxes, if you’re craving the authentic American Chinese food experience.
In this country, people have a way of taking food from other cultures and passing it through the American filter of “acceptably shiny and tasty.” Go to my high school (or any other, for that matter) and ask the average Joe or Jane what [insert nationality here] food is. While there are some truths to these food stereotypes–they do eat baguettes in France and salsa in Mexico–chances are, if you were to actually travel to the country, you’d find quite different dishes than you’d expect from dining in a food court in a Western mall.
General Tso’s chicken is a prime example of food stereotyping. Supposedly, it’s named after Zuo Zongtang (cool name, huh?), a Chinese general from Hunan, although there’s reportedly no connection between him and the coveted chicken dish. Like so many other “Chinese” classics–fortune cookies, egg rolls, those fried things in duck sauce that are always on restaurant tables–General Tso’s chicken was likely invented by Chinese chefs who, after immigrating to the States in the 20th Century, wanted to create dishes to appeal to the American palate.
Which means lots of oil, lots of salt, lots of sugar, and a boatload of unpronounceable chemicals. Yum.
Despite its false Asian origins, General Tso’s chicken was still my choice entree when my family and I would pick up Chinese food after my Tae Kwon Do classes when I was younger. (Did you know I got my black belt at age 10? Watch out.) With a side of steamed dumplings–which, believe me, I’m working on a recipe for–I’d chow down happily on a festival of greasy delight.
I’m long past those days; in fact, I think I’d go into sensory overload if I ate Chinese takeout food now. Despite that fact, I still thought it would be fun to recreate General Tso’s chicken with healthier ingredients, and I do believe I’ve succeeded. Crispy, juicy, and bursting with unami flavor, this dish is a lot like the takeout original, only better. It’s also fairly easy to make, so if a sudden craving comes along, this can come together quickly to satisfy it.
Are you ready to become a fake Chinese food aficionado? I am! Let’s get started.
You’ll first need 1 pound of boneless, skinless chicken breasts. Normally, I prefer chicken thighs for their superior flavor and juiciness, but sometimes, life calls for white meat.
The trick to making the chicken moist in your final dish is to brine it–but not for too long, or you’ll go into sodium shock when you take a bite. I recommend placing the chicken breasts in 4 cups of water with 1 tablespoon of salt for 2-4 hours, which is just long enough to tenderize and season the meat but not long enough to make it a pure block of sodium chloride.
When the brining time has elapsed, remove the chicken breasts from their salty bath and pat them dry with paper towels. Cut each piece into 1-inch cubes and set aside.
In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together 2 large egg whites with 1 tablespoon of coconut aminos (or organic tamari, if you prefer) and 1 tablespoon of mirin. Make sure your mirin is the naturally-brewed kind: most brands fill theirs with glucose syrup, which the original rice wine product does not contain!
Add the chicken pieces to the egg mixture, toss to coat, and let marinate for 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, mix 1 cup of arrowroot powder with 1 teaspoon of baking soda in a large bowl. When the chicken is done marinating, transfer the pieces–1/4 of the chicken at a time–into the arrowroot mixture, tossing well to coat. Transfer the coated chicken to a plate, and repeat the same process with the remaining meat. If necessary, add more arrowroot powder–it’s always better to coat the chicken well than skimp.
Heat a cast iron skillet over medium heat with enough oil to cover the bottom with about 1/2 inch of oil. You can use almost any oil that heats well to high heat: I’d recommend refined coconut oil, but palm shortening, duck fat, or even lard would work well.
When the oil is shimmering, add in 1/4 of the chicken pieces, making sure to spread them out and not overcrowd the pan. Fry until golden brown on one side, about 2-3 minutes, then flip over and cook on the other side until golden brown, about 1-2 minutes longer. If the chicken browns too quickly or seems to not be crisping up, increase or decrease the heat accordingly.
Once done frying, transfer the chicken to a plate lined with paper towels and blot them a bit to remove the excess oil.
Because the chicken pieces are small, they should be sufficiently cooked at this point. Taste a piece, if you’d like–it should be very tender and flavorful!
Repeat the same with the remaining chicken, working in batches to give the chicken pieces enough space.
When all of the chicken is done cooking, make the sauce.
(Note: this is what my counter looks like a lot of the time.)
In the bowl of a blender, combine 1 cup of chicken stock (preferably homemade), 1/4 cup of coconut aminos (or organic tamari, if you prefer), 1/4 cup of rice vinegar, 2 tablespoons of coconut nectar (or your preferred liquid sweetener of choice), 1 1/2 tablespoons of tomato paste, 1 tablespoon of mirin, 1 tablespoon of tahini, 1 tablespoon of garlic powder, 1 tablespoon of ground ginger, 1 tablespoon of sesame oil, 1 heaping tablespoon of arrowroot powder, and 1 small dried red chili pepper. The sauce should be thin and clump-less after blending; make sure you taste it and adjust it for proper sweetness/saltiness/sourness.
I know this is a lot of ingredients, but combined, they really impart the flavor of “authentic” Chinese food takeout! Each one contributes something special to the sauce, I promise.
Once you’ve made the sauce, transfer it to a small saucepan and whisk over medium-low heat until slightly thickened, about 3 to 4 minutes.
After thickening the sauce, lightly grease a large wok and heat over medium, then add the chicken…
…followed by the sauce. Toss to coat the chicken completely in the sauce and serve immediately over rice (purple sticky rice is my favorite) or cauliflower rice.
What was (or is) your favorite Chinese food takeout dish? Leave me a comment here or on Facebook and let me know!