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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
For the sauce and the frying
- 2 quarts vegetable or peanut oil
- 1 tablespoon sesame oil
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 4 scallions, white and light green parts only, minced
- 1 tablespoon minced or grated ginger
- 5 small dried chiles
- 1/2 cup hoisin sauce
- 1/4 cup rice vinegar
- 1/4 cup tamari or soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
- 2 tablespoons cornstarch
- 1 1/2 cups water, divided
For the cauliflower
- 1/2 cup cornstarch
- 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 pinch kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon garlic powder
- 1 tablespoon ground ginger
- 3 tablespoons sesame seeds
- 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
- 1/2 cup cold water, plus more as needed
- 1/2 cup vodka
- 1 large head cauliflower, cut into 1-inch florets
- 1 scallion, cut thinly on the bias, for serving
- 2 tablespoons sesame seeds, for serving
- Rice, for serving (optional)
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.