Jennifer 8. Lee, author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles describes Chinese Cuisine in America as “the biggest culinary joke played by one culture on another.” General Gau’s chicken tops that list in that it appears on nearly every Chinese menu in the US as a chef specialty. While the General was real – a soldier from the Hunan region in China – his chicken is wholly an American invention.
The dish varies from restaurant to restaurant, but the theme is consistent: crispy fried chunks of chicken tossed in a sweet and spicy sauce. Despite its inauthentic origins, it’s still a personal favorite.My favorite Chinese cookbook, The Chinese Kitchen by Eileen Yin-Fei Lo features a recipe that continues to receive rave reviews from my dinner guests. The sauce is nicely balanced, not overly sweet, and fragrant with ginger and chilies. My continual challenge – which most restaurants mastered – is frying the chicken nuggets so they stay crunchy after they’ve been tossed in the sauce. The chicken, marinated in egg and corn starch, is dusted with more corn starch just before frying. I’ve experimented with the oil temperature, twice frying and even trying to caramelize the sauce, to no avail.
When I was in China a few years ago on a summer internship from business school, I broke away on several occasions to take cooking lessons. The top technique on my list was learning how to get the crispy chicken nuggets even after they were tossed in sauce. My cooking instructor in Beijing happily obliged me.
The first secret is in the corn starch. He used “wet” corn starch. To make wet corn starch: combine ½ cup of corn starch with enough water to make a slurry, about ½ cup. Let the mix sit for at least ½ hour until the water and starch separate. Pour off all the excess water. What you’re left with is the wet corn starch. It’s slightly chalky, but dissolves into liquid when you run your fingers through it. It is this mixture that he tossed the chicken cubes in before frying.
The second secret, which really isn’t as critical as the first, is in cooking the sauce. The sauce must be reduced until almost all the water has evaporated. It is then reconstituted with a little oil.
General Gau's Chicken
adapted from Eileen Yen-Fei Lo
½ teaspoon salt
2 tbs dry corn starch
2 ½ tablespoons dark soy sauce
2 tablespoons hoisin
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon white vinegar
1 ½ teaspoons Shao-Hsing Wine
½ cup wet corn starch
3 cups plain oil
1 teaspoon chopped garlic
1 tablespoon chopped ginger
8 small dried chilies
1 bunch scallions, cut into rings.
Marinate chicken with salt, egg and corn starch for 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, make the sauce by combining the soy sauce, hoisin, sugar, vinegar and wine.Add 1 tbs. of frying oil to the pan. Add ginger, garlic, scallions and chilies and cook until aromatic.
When chicken is crispy drain and add to ginger mix. Pour in sauce and reduce.
Serve over rice with steamed broccoli.