Sometimes the origins of my favorite foods confound me. Like, why does General Tso have a spicy, sweet, deep-fried chicken dish named after him?
Turns out, the connection is pure fiction.
General Tso Tsung-tang was a respected Qing dynasty (1644 to 1912) statesman from China's Hunan province. Tsung-tang's descendants claim the General never heard of nor tasted the dish.
As Fuchsia Dunlop revealed in a 2007 New York Times' magazine article, General Tso's chicken is "virtually unknown in the Chinese province of Hunan itself." Seems residents of Hunan generally don't go for savory/sweet entree combinations.
It appears this "classic" Hunan dish originated in the United States in the 1970s by Hunan-born chef Peng Chang-kuei. Chang-kuei once said his original version was "heavy, sour, hot and salty;" traits more in line with authentic Hunan cuisine.
He marinated dark meat chicken pieces before dipping them in a thick flour, cornstarch and egg-based batter and dropping the pieces into a deep-fat fryer. As if that oil-absorbing batter wasn't bad enough, Chang-kuei tweaked the recipe for American palates by sweetening it up; some recipes call for ˝ cup of a sugary sauce, adding caloric insult to injury. Ugh.
I put on my Lean Wizard's hat and began conjuring-up a healthier version of this Chinese takeout favorite.
One obvious culprit in this diet disaster is the batter and frying. Realizing that the batter contributes nothing to the dish's flavor profile I simply eliminated it. The healthful gain outweighs the textural pleasure of the crisply coating.
Marinating the chicken adds flavor, so I kept that step and opted for a quick sauté to seal in those flavors. I also made the dish in one pan, removing the cooked chicken before sauteing garlic, ginger and crushed red pepper flakes with the slimmed-down sauce and pan juices into a nicely thickened and flavorful sauce.
I served my healthier General Tso's chicken over rice and topped it with chopped green onions. The chicken was succulent, but the sauce still tasted too sweet and lacked garlic. It did have the heat that was close to what I've sampled in Hunan restaurants.
For my second batch I cut back the sugar, added hoisin sauce, bumped-up the garlic and ended up with a well-balanced dish. Steamed broccoli drizzled with a touch of soy sauce rounded out my new dish. General Tso may never have tasted the dish that bears his name and he's certainly never had my version, but I think he would have liked it.
• Don Mauer welcomes questions, comments and recipe makeover requests. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.