I noticed the recipe for “General Tao Chicken,” from Allrecipes.com, was selling itself as a “mild version” of this dish. With the final ingredient being ketchup, I was hopeful that my young child would enjoy this one. But what, I wondered, is the origin of this dish? Dave often orders it from takeout Chinese. Read on…

After minimal research, I confirmed that this is typically a sweet-and-spicy, deep-fried chicken dish that originates from American and Canadian Chinese restaurants, not from anywhere in China. And the dish has nothing to do with General Tso, or Zuo Zongtang, the Qing dynasty general and statesman. The dish also has nothing to do with Hunan- or Szechuan-style cuisine, even though it was heralded as an example of such in 1970s New York City. This is hilarious! But the restaurant formula is right on: this dish is addictively sweet, tangy, yummy, and well-textured. My young child announced, “I LIKE this!” then ate three servings. The Chinese restaurants got the formula right, and so did I.

Cornstarch is an unashamedly necessary ingredient of Chinese-restaurant cuisine. In this recipe, it helps the chicken develop a good texture and helps the sauce to thicken. The scents of sesame oil, fresh ginger, scallions (I used 3 1/2 scallions), and soy sauce in your kitchen will remind you of that Chinese restaurant. I used white wine vinegar instead of distilled white vinegar and I used fish sauce-- made from the first pressing of salted anchovies -- instead of oyster sauce, which is a rich, savory sauce made from boiled oysters and seasoning. My chicken pieces were cooked in 9 minutes. You can definitely show off with this dish, because everyone will be impressed with a home-cooked, Chinese-restaurant favorite.

As an oddball accompaniment with my chicken, I also cooked the “Spring Vegetable Pilaf,” from Secrets of Good-Carb Low-Carb Living, by Sandra Woodruff. And just to be goofy, I replaced the brown rice with couscous! The recipe asks for dried savory (a delicate, pleasantly aromatic, popular culinary herb widely used in eastern European and American cuisines) or fines herbes (a finely minced French herb blend that must include parsley and chives and may also include tarragon, chervil, coriander, lovage, thyme, marjoram, basil, cress, or dill), but I used my reliable herbes de Provence, which is a dried herb mix that contains savory, fennel, basil, thyme, and lavender flowers. No problem!

I added a total of 1 tsp. salt to this pilaf. It was very good.

Chicken Breasts (1 1/4 lbs.) = $6.27

RECIPES: explore General Tao Chicken from the inside out and set it up next to an uncharacteristic pilaf
PREP TIMES: quick wok cookery gives you a finished dish in less than 30 minutes; a fast pilaf does the same
TASTES: chicken breast pieces are ideally battered and fried, then bathed in a sweet tangy sauce that’ll make you giggle; allow asparagus, red bell pepper, and peas to flaunt in your pilaf

Next time, I’ll take a vegetarian trip. I’ll cook the “Hearty Grain Soup with Beans and Greens,” from the February 2007 issue of Vegetarian Times, along with the “Savory Pumpkin Quiche,” from the October 2006 issue of the same publication. Come back to my site on Wednesday, April 28, to see my meal.