Year of the Takeout: Part Deux

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Fried fun

Day 2: General Tso's Chicken from King Dragon (1548 Madison Avenue, 212-369-6788)

The identity of General Tso and the origin of his eponymous, ubiquitous chicken has long been a question nagging the American psyche, right along with queries like "Who is John Galt?" (spoiler: he's a total jackass with a long, clunky monologue) and "Who killed Laura Palmer?" (I haven't finished the series on Netflix yet, so I don't know!)

Luckily, Fuchsia Dunlop gives us an answer in Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook, in which she traces the dish's roots back to China's Hunan Province.

Apparently, a General Tso Tsung-t'ang did exist and allegedly enjoyed a lightly fried chicken in a thick, peppery sauce. (Tso Tsung-t'ang, in case you might be interested, gained notoriety by successfuly suppressing rebellious Uyghurs in the mid-19th-century.)

Dunlop notes that this recipe doesn't show up in classic Hunan cooking texts, suggesting that it's probably just named after him, as many Chinese dishes get named after the country's notable figures.

So, General Tso's as we know it originally began its journey to the U.S. in the middle of the 20th century, when Chinese nationalists went to Taiwan to escape Maoists. Some of these refugees included the nation's top chefs. And one of these culinary stars, Peng Chang-kuei, wound up moving to New York and opening a Chinese restaurant in 1973.

Peng Chang-kuei's establishment gained significant respect and attention, since his cooking attracted U.N. staffers who worked near the 44th Street restaurant.

According to Dunlop, the core flavors of General Tso's -- savory spiciness -- stem from Hunanese cuisine, whereas the sugar is a U.S. modification, added by Peng Chang-kuei to appeal to American tastes.

(Note: Francis Lam has also written about this.)

King Dragon, similar to other takeouts, serves a small-sized version of this staple for $5.


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Fit for a general!

Quality-wise, this restaurant falls somewhere in the upper half of such eateries, and can best be described as solid -- but not superlative.

The predominately dark-meat chicken has an overwhelmingly moist mouthfeel. The breading balances crispiness with chewiness.

The Achilles' heel?

The sauce -- a little on the syrupy, sticky side, the gravy could have featured a lot less starch and far more spice.


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