Chinese

Vegan General Tso's Cauliflower: In No Way Authentic, In Every Way Tasty

December 18, 2015

This Christmas, sleigh bells will ring—and so will the phones of Chinese restaurants.

Because while some of you are preparing crown roasts, others of you will be fiddling with chopsticks. Many orders of General Tso's chicken—battered, deep-fried chicken pieces coated with a sweet-and-sour chili sauce—will be placed, filled, enjoyed.

As a vegetarian, I had tasted nothing attributed to General Tso until I got to college, where his tofu appeared repeatedly in the hot food bar. But had General Tso tried those large and spongy tofu cubes in a too-sweet (and "was that a peanut I just ate?") sauce, I'd guess he would have asked for his name to be removed from the title.

Photo by James Ransom

Luckily, a vegetarian version of General Tso's chicken does exist—in the form of cauliflower. At the Indian restaurant Babu Ji in New York City, they serve Colonel Tso's cauliflower: "Indo-Chinese style cauliflower in a tomato chili sauce, sesame and onion seed, chives." The cauliflower is lightly battered with a crisp exoskeleton; the sauce is balanced (spicy, sweet, acidic), the alliums bright.

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Top Comment:
“As an FYI, if you are looking for "Authenticity" when it comes to General Tso's chicken, that ship has sailed. There is a General Tso, but an investigation of the Hunan region shows that it has no connection to him outside of the name.”
— David N.
Comment

It's a recipe inspired by the dish gobi Manchurian: an Indian interpretation of Chinese cooking in which cauliflower florets are battered, deep-fried, and either tossed with or served next to a sweet and spicy tomato-y sauce usually made with soy, ketchup, ginger, and garlic.

Photo by James Ransom

What I've created is a replica neither of gobi Manchurian nor General Tso's chicken nor Colonel Tso's cauliflower (the recipe for which is a Babu Ji secret). My recipe isn't even faithful to one source: The backbone of the sauce—sour, hot, sweet, totally lap-up-able—is adapted from a Reddit thread called "I've perfected General Tso's cauliflower" and I bolstered it using the hundreds of other recipes for General Tso's sauce I found on the internet.

And the battering technique comes from Serious Eats' Crispy Buffalo Fried Cauliflower. It's pure Kenji brilliance: Equal parts cornstarch, flour, water, and vodka (plus salt and baking soda) creates a crisp, crunchy coating (and the science behind it is the same as the explanation for Genius Pie Crust).

Chicken 65: Another relative of General Tso? Photo by Michelle Peters-Jones

But before you tell me it's absurd to give this dish the moniker of "General Tso" when I've culled from so many places—when I've gone to Reddit and Serious Eats, to India and New York City—consider the origin of General Tso's chicken in the first place.

"General Tso’s chicken is an invented tradition," Fuchsia Dunlop wrote in the New York Times Magazine. The "dish upon which the international reputation of Hunanese cuisine was largely based […] was a product of the exiled Nationalist society of Taiwan."

To summarize Dunlop: General Tso's chicken was invented by Peng Chang-kuei, a chef for the Nationalist party who fled to Taiwan after the Chinese Communist Revolution and came to New York twenty-four years after that. He adapted his cooking to please the American palate (Henry Kissinger was a fan), adding sugar to the chicken dish, for example, and his apprentices spread his cooking over the U.S.

Taiwanese popcorn chicken—another cousin? Photo by Two Red Bowls

But there are competing theories and twists to the story. The dish's origins are so murky and its presence in the U.S. so ubiquitous, there's even a whole documentary film about the search for its roots.

Now that we're so far from the source—whatever that source may be—it seems okay to name my recreation of an Indian restaurant's interpretation of a Chinese-American dish after General Tso. And hey, maybe I'll give General Tso's tofu another try after all.

And because you're wondering...

Yes, the deep-frying is necessary: "Deep-frying is an essential part of this recipe, for the nice crunchy flavor," advised Jessi Singh, creator of Babu Ji. "In the oven, it’s a beautiful dish but it doesn’t keep at all—becomes soggy and loses it crunch."

Use the sauce on any good-tasting deep-fried food. Jessi suggests chicken, lamb, beef, prawns, squid, or calamari.

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The Food52 Vegan Cookbook is here! With this book from Gena Hamshaw, anyone can learn how to eat more plants (and along the way, how to cook with and love cashew cheese, tofu, and nutritional yeast).

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8 Comments

David N. December 21, 2015
As an FYI, if you are looking for "Authenticity" when it comes to General Tso's chicken, that ship has sailed. There is a General Tso, but an investigation of the Hunan region shows that it has no connection to him outside of the name.
 
David N. December 21, 2015
Ooops, sorry. I just saw that you referred to the documentary I saw in the article.
 
Author Comment
Sarah J. December 21, 2015
But the plot thickens! http://www.eater.com/2015/12/20/10630408/oberlin-college-students-cafeterias-general-tsos-chicken-bahn-mi-sushi-cultural-appropriation
 
Carissa W. December 20, 2015
This looks great - need some directions, though...<br />
 
CircleFly December 20, 2015
Click on View Full Recipe.<br />http://food52.com/recipes/39759-general-tso-s-cauliflower
 
CircleFly December 20, 2015
Ah, sorry, I didn't check the comments section on that page to see that you already found it.
 
Casey M. December 20, 2015
Hi Sarah! This sounds amazing!<br /><br />I'm wondering: what specific small dried chilis would work here?
 
Author Comment
Sarah J. December 20, 2015
You can use chiles de arbol, dried pequin peppers, dried Thai bird's eye chiles, or dried serranos. Any spicy dried chile will do (and if it's very, very spice, use fewer)! Hope you enjoy!!