I can’t remember the last time I had nothing really pressing to do on a weekend. It certainly wasn’t this year. That’s why I loved every second of this past weekend. David and I spent Saturday at the spa, sitting thigh to thigh with naked Germans in the sauna, brunching on omelets and fruit juices, reading novels in the sun-soaked relaxation room. On Sunday, we lounged about in the apartment, reading, watching episode after guilt-free episode of TV on our laptops, and dancing around the kitchen to Taylor Swift’s new pop pleasure album and cooking General Tso’s chicken. Happy days indeed.
I’ve had a hankering to make General Tso’s for a while now. I don’t eat much Chinese food, or crave it, as a general rule, but once a year, I long for the super buffet. I want rows of sticky, saucy bins filled with deep fried meat and soggy, soy-sauced vegetables. I want crisp, oily egg rolls dipped in questionably orange sauce, sweet, dark ribs stuck with white rice, and slick, salty lo mein. I want an enigmatic fortune delivered inside a thin vanilla cookie folded like a love note and won ton soup.
Chinese food in Germany is different. The sauces aren’t as sweet. The soy sauce ratio is wrong. I hardly dare say it’s inauthentic – like much of the Chinese food on American buffets, the dishes weren’t invented in China, but in other countries where diners had preconceived taste preferences and limited ingredient availability. General Tso’s chicken, for instance, was inspired by the Hunanese kitchen, but only introduced to China after émigré chefs returned back home from America.
Sunday was a crave the buffet day. And surprisingly enough, the ingredients for General Tso’s chicken were for the most part staple pantry supplies I always have on hand – cornstarch, garlic, soy sauce, sugar, vinegar, eggs… I’d just never thought of making it on my own.
The process is fairly simple, and perfectly suited for a lazy Sunday afternoon. You make a cornstarch slurry – an absolutely icky, putty-like paste of cornstarch, soy sauce, and egg – then coat the chicken with it. The chicken is deep fried in oil, and comes out in perfect golden nuggets of juicy meat without a trace of its hideous slurry past. You make a sauce of broth, wine, vinegar, sugar, and, of course, more cornstarch, and swirl it in some of the hot oil you used to fry the chicken. When the sauce starts looking like a pot of glue, you add the chicken and toss to coat. It’s just like buffet-made: gelatinous, sticky, sweet, salty sauce-covered chicken pocked with white sesame seeds. And utterly unhealthy.
Today is Tuesday. I feel invigorated and ready to work, and I can’t help but attribute it to the lazy, email-free, work-free weekend where my responsibilities were to no one but myself and my hungry belly (well, and David’s hungry belly). I’m reminded of my New Year’s resolutions to slow down. For the first time since I made them, I think they’re working
General Tso’s Chicken
Don’t be disheartened by the pale white color of the sauce or the goopy look of the cornstarch slurry. This dish relies heavily on the magic chemistry of cornstarch and heat to make great things happen. The sauce won’t be quite the same orange color as buffet General Tso’s, but the flavor is all there. Adapted from this recipe on food.com.
For the sauce:
¼ cup cornstarch
2 tbsp. water
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/3 cup sugar
2 tbsp. soy sauce
2 tbsp. white vinegar
2 tbsp. white wine
7 oz. chicken broth
For the chicken:
2 tbsp. soy sauce
½ cup cornstarch
2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1 cup diced green onions, plus extra for garnish
4 bird’s eye chilis, de-seeded and diced
To make the sauce, combine all ingredients and whisk until the cornstarch has dissolved. Set aside. Re-whisk the sauce before use.
Make a cornstarch slurry by mixing together the soy sauce, egg, and cornstarch until well-blended. It will be a very thick, unappetizing-looking sludge the color of an 80’s tan velour sofa. Not to worry – this is just the way you want it.
Wash and dry the chicken breast, then cut it into bite-sized pieces. Add chicken to the cornstarch slurry and toss with your hands to combine. Make sure the chicken is thoroughly coated.
Heat enough vegetable oil to generously cover the bottom of a large skillet (preferably, the oil will have at least ½-1 inch depth). When it is very hot (flick a drop of water into the skillet, and if it sizzles loudly at you, it’s hot enough), drop the chicken one piece at a time into the oil. Cook in batches of 8-10, taking care not to overcrowd the skillet, as it will lower the temperature of the oil too quickly, making the chicken will soggy. Drain each batch on paper towels.
When all the chicken has been cooked, discard all but 3 tbsp. of the cooking oil. Add green onions and chilis and cook until just softened, about 1 minute. Re-whisk the sauce, then add to the skillet. Cook until the sauce thickens, about 3-4 minutes, then add the chicken pieces. Coat with the sauce and keep on the stove just about a minute longer.
Garnish with sesame seeds and green onion. Serve over basmati rice.