top of page

General Tso’s Chicken—A Cross-Cultural Creation

My favorite Hunanese-style dish is General Tso’s Chicken. It consists of lightly battered chicken pieces tossed in a slightly spicy, sweet-and-sour sauce. Its history is a rather long story, so I will share only the shortened version.

General Tso's Chicken is named for Tso Tsung-t'ang, a formidable 19th century general who supposedly loved eating this dish. Classic books on Hunanese cuisine, however, have no record of any dish named after General Tso. In fact, General Tso’s Chicken is virtually unknown in Hunan.

If this recipe didn’t originate in Hunan, where did it? The man credited with its creation is Peng Chang-kuei, a chef for the Nationalist party, who fled China to Taiwan along with Nationalist party members after their humiliating defeat by Mao Zedong’s Communists in 1949. According to Peng Chang-kuei, "General Tso's chicken did not preexist in Hunanese cuisine, but originally the flavors of the dish were typically Hunanese — heavy, sour, hot and salty." He remembers first making this dish in Taiwan sometime during the 1950s. So, there you have it—it has Hunan roots but originated in Taiwan.

Peng Chang-kuei moved to New York in 1973 where he opened a restaurant on 44th Street. At that time Hunan food was unknown in the US, but Henry Kissinger visited Peng Chang-kuei’s restaurant and fell in love with his recipe for General Tso’s Chicken. Peng Chang-kuei believes Kissinger’s fondness for the dish is responsible for its popularity in the US. So, General Tso’s Chicken is a truly cross-cultural recipe—mimicking Hunan-style cuisine, created in Taiwan, and popularized in the US by none other than a former Secretary of State.

If you make this dish, I recommend using air-chilled chicken. An explanation of why follows the recipe. I prefer using thigh meat in this recipe, as its meat is moister, but you can use breast meat.

General Tso’s Chicken

Serves 4

For the sauce:

⅓ cup hoisin sauce

⅓ cup low-sodium soy sauce

¼ cup rice vinegar

2 teaspoons chili paste

3 heaping tablespoons brown sugar

1 tablespoon fresh minced ginger ( I buy the jarred variety found in the Produce Department.)

1 tablespoon minced garlic

6 whole dried chili peppers

In a medium bowl, place hoisin sauce, soy sauce, rice vinegar, chili paste, brown sugar, ginger, and garlic and whisk to blend. Set aside. Do not add dried chili peppers until the very end.

For the chicken:

1 ½ pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into bite-size pieces

1 cup cornstarch

1 teaspoon salt

Dash white pepper

2 large egg whites

½ cup vegetable or canola oil

In a medium bowl, place cornstarch, salt, and pepper and stir to blend. Transfer the cornstarch mixture to a gallon-size Ziplock® bag and shake gently to further combine.

In a large mixing bowl, place egg whites and beat with a hand-held mixture until soft peaks form. (For soft peaks when you remove the beaters, a soft peak will form, then droop.) Do not overbeat. Add chicken pieces to the egg whites and toss to coat.

Transfer chicken pieces to the Ziplock® bag, letting any excess egg whites drop back into the bowl. Seal the bag and shake it, coating chicken pieces evenly with the cornstarch mixture.

Place a large skillet over a medium-high heat. Add oil. When the oil sizzles, fry chicken in small batches so that the pieces are not crowded. Do not add chicken until the oil is sizzling hot as it will absorb the oil. Cook until the pieces are golden brown, and the chicken is cooked through. Transfer pieces to a paper-towel lined plate and continue frying until all the chicken pieces are cooked.

Drain any remaining oil from the skillet. Reduce the heat to a medium low and add the sauce and chili peppers to the pan. Simmer gently until the sauce has warmed and thickened. Add the chicken to the sauce and continue simmering until the chicken pieces are warmed.

For the garnish:

1 green onion, thinly sliced

Sesame seeds

Garnish with green onions and sprinkle with sesame seeds. Serve over rice.

Tips on buying chicken: Chicken must be brought to a temperature of 40 degrees F after feather removal. The industry standard immerses chicken in a cold-water bath. When chicken is cooled using this process, it will absorb some of this liquid, which makes it more costly. It will, also, often purge fluid into its tray, which dilutes the flavor and results in a soggy texture. Avoid buying chicken with an excess amount of liquid in its packaging.

A preferred process is air chilling, which circulates chicken through purified cold air to bring it to a safe temperature. Not all air chilling is the same. Some producers will use a combination of water and cold air and seek verification from the USDA as using an air-chilling process. Look for chicken that is 100 percent air chilled. Air-chilled chicken is more tender and has better flavor.

In addition, if you love grilled or pan-seared chicken with crispy, golden skin, air-chilled chicken is a better choice. Because no water was used in the chilling process, chicken skin remains taut and never soggy.

Because air-chilled chicken has not absorbed excess liquid, it is a better value. If chicken is air chilled, it will say so on its label.

Carol Ann

Carol Ann Kates is the award-winning author of cookbook, Secret Recipes from the Corner Market and Grocery Shopping Secrets. She’s an expert in how to shop, select, and store produce for maximizing home cooking outcomes and minimizing time and money spent. As a former supermarket and deli operator, Carol Ann shares grocery-insider wisdom—the same expertise you used to receive when patronizing a mom-and-pop establishment. Contact her at and explore her website,

Copyright 2024 All Rights Reserved Carol Ann Kates

11 views0 comments


bottom of page