General Tao, NiHao! Or should I say Hello!?! The truth is I never had General Tao Chicken while I was living in China, and trust me, seven years in PRC means I had A LOT of Chinese food on my plate! The reason of this is that General Tao is in fact an American dish inspired from Chinese food, firstly created on US soil, and later on exported to European fast-food restaurants. It has the taste of Hunan spicy food, and the flavors of Cantonese sweet and sour cuisine, Hunan and Canton being two Southern provinces of China.
In Nice, France, where I live, there is this little Asian fast-food restaurant that has been a family favorite for as long as I can remember. It is named The Phnom Penh after the Capital city of Cambodia, and offers all sorts of Asian cuisine, from Chinese to Thai, Vietnamese and of course Cambodian. When I met my husband, I took him there, and since the day of his very first experience in this restaurant he’s been relentlessly asking for more date nights at this place. The main reason of our love affair – with the Phnom Penh – is the quality of their General Tao chicken, we’ve been crazy for it for years now!!
I’ve often wanted to try making my own General Tao, bearing in mind that I’ll have to master the art of prepping the chicken pieces on one hand, and master the art of making the coating sauce on the other hand, as it is often the case in Chinese cuisine.
In regards to the prep of chicken pieces, I’ve tried to avoid the deep-frying process and figured out I could bake those little devils in the oven instead. Nevertheless, in my opinion, it is not possible to come through without a single drop of oil at all. Yes, without oil your chicken can be perfectly cooked in the oven. But No, the end result cannot turn out as crispy as a General Tao chicken should be, sorry. I am yet a true defender of non-fat food, but a fair cook must reckon when a certain technique is going to fail the recipe in the end. Picking a special breadcrumbs type or quality will not be sufficient, your dish will not “take” in if no oil is involved at some point. So I’ve come up with a technique of my own, which turned out to be pretty efficient as far as “crispy” was the desired effect, and allowed my General Tao chicken recipe to be classified in the “lighter diet” category of nice foods. After dipping the chicken pieces into a liquid paste made of tempura batter mix and water (or flour + water), I skipped the regular and usual step of dipping them into a beaten egg bowl, and directly rolled them in-and-out Panko breadcrumbs after I’ve “humidified” the crumbs with a little bit of oil. The key to achieve a low-fat preparation is to go bit by bit in a small bowl. Do not prepare the whole breadcrumbs quantity at once because you may have no control over the total oil volume. Also, you’ll be surprised to find out that half a tablespoon of oil can humidify a rather large amount of breadcrumbs. Be thorough in your preparation, and do it all with bare fingers, it’s much easier! Your chicken pieces are ready to be baked in the oven on a clear baking sheet – no cooking spray please!
Now about the sauce, there are so many recipes online that I find it hard to figure out the right balance of ingredients in order to achieve the perfect coating that makes this chicken recipe so unique. I am still trying hard to find the perfect combination, but after months of searches, yesterday I finally gave in and used a store-bought sauce. But not just any store-bought sauce, though.
One of the categories I’ve filed my recipe under is “Inspired from my Trips”. I find it funny that I’ve instinctively done so, because it’s actually while traveling in the US that I’ve purchased a bottle of Chinese General Tao sauce. I went to New-York city last March on a solo trip, and I visited one of the supermarkets of the chain Trader Joe’s, where I accidentally came across my bottle of Stir-Fry General Tao coating sauce. So, now that we know that General Tao chicken is an American dish inspired from China, it kinda makes perfect sense that this dish of mine is “inspired from my trips”, doesn’t it?!
So, sorry for today’s recipe, there will be no fancy ingredient list to show off, but I’m not ashamed at all because at least I’ve learnt how to bake perfectly crispy General Tao chicken pieces with a minimum amount of oil, and that’s a win!
INGREDIENTS (for 2 Servings)
- 2 chicken breasts
- Tempura batter mix (or flour) + water
- Panko breadcrumbs or your regular breadcrumb mix
- A bit of vegetal oil
- General Tao stir-fry sauce
- Chopped scallions
- White jasmin sticky rice to serve along.
- Prepare the rice in your rice-cooker.
- Preheat the oven on 210 degrees C.
- Butterfly the chicken breasts (open them in two, cutting in the thickness), and slice medium length strips of chicken.
- Line a baking sheet on your oven tray, and place near your working surface.
- Prepare in front of you 2 bowls: one bowl filled with batter mix + water to form a light thin paste (like an eggwash or so), one bowl filled with a first batch of breadcrumbs with just a little bit of oil to humidify the crumbs.
- Dip a small handful of chicken pieces into the thin paste, taking care of coating them well on all sides.
- Immediately roll each piece individually and one after another into the breadcrumbs, and place on the oven tray once each piece is evenly coated on all sides.
- Repeat with all the chicken pieces and don’t hesitate to refill the bowl with the breadcrumbs and the oil, taking care of not over-using oil in the process (you’re a reasonnable person, remember?).
- When all chicken strips are onto the baking tray, make sure they’re well aligned and not touching, so that they don’t get attached during the baking process.
- Put in the oven for a total of 25-30 minutes. After the first 15-20 minutes, flip all the strips over, so that they get an equally golden color and get as crispy on each side.
- Just about 5 minutes before the end, turn around your baking tray in the oven, so that all chicken strips benefit from the high heat of the oven.
- When your chicken looks nice and crispy, take it out of the oven.
- Heat a clean and empty wok on the stove.
- Put all the chicken pieces at once and immediately pour about 3 tbsp of General Tao stir-fry sauce. Quickly combine in the wok so that all strips get equally coated.
- Serve white rice in two separate bowls and top with the chicken.
- Chop scallion green leaves and serve warm.
- Enjoy your dish as never before!
Created and Written by Sophie Rebibo-Halimi, © 2016 All Rights Reserved.