Sunday, 8 August 2010

Searching for General Tso

General Shou's crispy chicken, No.10 Restaurant
General Tso's chicken is to American-Chinese cuisine, what chicken tikka masala is to Anglo-Indian cuisine. Whilst not exactly authentic, this combination of lightly battered fried chicken in a tangy spicy sauce with garlic, ginger, and chilli pepper is probably the best-known Chinese dish in America. However, like many things that are popular across the pond such as country music and NASCAR racing, it hasn't really caught on in this country.

I first became aware of this dish a little over ten years ago on a business trip to Hong Kong. My then boss, an American, complained that General Tso's chicken wasn't on the menu in the restaurant we were in. He was also quite incredulous that neither the guys in the HK office nor I had heard of this dish. When I did look this dish up on the internet, I can't say I was that interested in it but over the years my indifference has waned and I've found myself wanting to check it out.

So when meandering around Earl's Court one day, I got quite excited when I spotted the similarly named General Shou's crispy chicken at No.10 RestaurantI would've tried it on the spot but for the fact that I was full. The other thing holding me back was that I wasn't 100% sure that it was the same dish as General Tso's. With that in mind, I made a note of the Chinese name, 左宗堂雞, and this matched when I checked it on the interweb.

I'm also glad I waited, as I realised having never eaten this dish, I had no idea how it should taste. That's when I decided to call in some expert help in the form of An American in London to organise a tasting of the General's chicken. Upping the North American contingent, Krista, Su-Lin and late substitute, Mr A-in-L also joined us.

To be honest, I was a bit disappointed when I finally sampled this dish in that it was like a bog standard sweet & sour with some chilli. I'm also not sure what the hell peanuts were doing in there either. It was as if General Tso had started a fight with Kung Pao and won custody of the peanuts. My fellow diners agreed that this faux-General was a bit of a let down. The search for the real General Tso in London goes on.

Spicy shredded chicken cold noodles (before and after)
What about the rest of the meal ? To be honest, it was a mixed bag. My tip would be to stick to the Sichuan specials at the front of the menu. The boiled beef aka shui zhu niu rou, spicy shredded chicken cold noodles, and sea spicy aubergines aka yuxiang qiezi were amongst the better dishes of the evening. On the downside, we were a tad miffed that the dry fried green beans were off the menu.

Less successful was the Cantonese twin platter of siu yuk (crispy belly pork) and cha siu (honey roast pork). The siu yuk was obviously reheated and too dry whilst the cha siu was tired looking and had far too much red food colouring. That said the gai lan stir-fried w/garlic was well cooked.

Together with rice, drinks, and service, the bill clocked in at around £75 or £15/head - pretty good value. For a similar price, Chilli Cool is superior but still it's good to know that there's a restaurant in Earl's Court that knocks out competent Sichuan.

No. 10 on Urbanspoon

Postscript: There are conflicting claims as to who invented General Tso's chicken. Whilst it is often described as a Hunan dish, it was actually invented in either Taiwan or New York by chefs with Hunan ancestry. For a recipe and a bit more history about the dish, click here and if you're still intrigued, further reading can be found here


  1. According to Fuchsia Dunlop this dish was invented a Hunanese cook that ended up in Taiwan in the 50's. The original version is just hot and sour rather than sickly sweet like the American version. I will post the original Taiwanese version during my Hunanese week.

  2. In defense of "the General," when made well, it's not "sickly sweet." Perhaps the reason it hasn't caught on in the UK is because the versions served (like the one at No. 10) are horribly crap.

    I'll admit I've eaten a lot of General Tso's both in the US and Taiwan and haven't noticed a difference when they are made with care and with quality ingredients.

    If readers are ever in North Jersey, this is where I grew up sampling "the General."

  3. 3HT - the story of General Tso is a fascinating one and I've linked to Fuschia Dunlop's NYT article in the postscript. I'm also looking forward to your Hunan week. BTW - are there many Hunan joints in Melbourne?

    A-in-L - I'm going to have to disagree with you on your theory as to why General Tso hasn't taken off in the UK. It has nothing to do with quality, after all there's a lot of crap food (Chinese or otherwise) that is popular in the UK. The reason why General Tso doesn't really exist in this country is all to do with immigration patterns.

    Until the recent boom in restaurant openings by Mainland Chinese immigrants in the last decade, virtually all the Chinese eateries in the UK were run by Cantonese immigrants from the former British colonies of Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Singapore. General Tso is pretty much unknown in all those places. Unlike the US, there was and remains very little immigration from Taiwan - where General Tso's chicken was born - to the UK.

    It was a shame about No.10's version but I'm not giving up hope that I will find decent General Tso somewhere in London.

  4. I definitely want to recreate an American-Chinese restaurant style General Tso's chicken at home. I just hope that the recipe I follow doesn't result in the same oddball mess that we ate!

    Nice write up! It does seem odd that they ran out of green beans...

  5. Su-Lin - I'm sure you'll be fine as long as you leave the peanuts out. There's a link to Fuchsia Dunlop's recipe in the postscript. On the green beans that was a bit poor but I'm finding more and more eateries seem to be running out of stuff. I'm wondering whether restaurants are ordering less supplies to reduce potential wastage.

  6. Love the blog, here's something you might find interesting:

  7. arthurmauk - thanks! Great video and thanks for sharing.

  8. I just ended up on your blog after googling something like 'General Tso's Chicken London Restaurant'. I've lived here four and a half years and have yet to locate anything even as close as your General Shou's! Although I do enjoy Eastern Star, also in Earl's Court. Mmm mmm cheap chinese takeaway.

  9. Jules - I've seen General Tso's at Bashan in Soho. I haven't got round to trying it but you should give it a whirl.