Hunan Chicken vs. General Tso: Exploring the differences
When it comes to Asian cuisine in the United States, two popular chicken dishes often come to mind: Hunan Chicken and General Tso’s Chicken. Despite their similar appearance, these dishes have distinct differences in cooking methods, flavors, and origins. In this article, we will delve into the contrasts between Hunan Chicken and General Tso’s Chicken, exploring their ingredients, cooking techniques, flavors, and even spiciness.
What is Hunan Chicken?
Hunan chicken is a popular dish in Hunan cuisine, also known as Xiang cuisine. Hunan cuisine originated in the Xiang River region of China, where spicy flavors and vibrant colors are hallmarks of the culinary style. While often associated with the fiery Sichuan cuisine, Hunan cuisine tends to be less searing in terms of heat. Unlike Sichuan cuisine, Hunan-style dishes rarely incorporate sweet and spicy flavor combinations.
Hunan-style restaurants gained popularity in the United States in the 1970s, when a group of Chinese chefs from Hunan Province migrated to Taiwan and then to the United States. Since then, Hunan-style dishes, including Hunan chicken, have become staples in Asian bistros and restaurants across the country.
So what exactly is Hunan chicken? It is a dish of pan-seared chicken that has been “velveted” for tenderness, accompanied by various vegetables, all coated in a spicy sauce with chilies for a touch of heat.
What is General Tso’s Chicken?
General Tso’s Chicken, also known as General Tao’s or Tsao’s Chicken, is a popular sweet and spicy chicken dish that has become a cornerstone of Chinese-American cuisine. The dish is named after General Zuo Zongtang, a military leader from Hunan. It is important to note, however, that General Tso himself never created or consumed the dish that bears his name.
The origin of General Tso’s Chicken is the subject of various claims and stories. One common belief is that the dish was invented in Taiwan in 1955 by Peng Chang-kuai, a Hunanese chef who named it after the famous Hunanese general. Interestingly, Chef Peng’s original version of General Tso’s chicken did not have the sweet flavor characteristic of the Chinese-American version. Therefore, the sweetness in General Tso’s chicken is likely an American adaptation.
General Tso’s chicken gained popularity in the United States through Chinese restaurants that opened in New York in the 1980s. Over time, variations of the dish have emerged, with General Tso’s shrimp, tofu, salmon, and other proteins used as alternatives to chicken.
Key differences between Hunan Chicken and General Tso’s Chicken
To understand the differences between Hunan Chicken and General Tso’s Chicken, we need to examine their ingredients, cooking techniques, flavors, and textures. Let’s examine these aspects in detail:
Both dishes feature boneless chicken breasts or thighs as the main protein. In addition, a variety of vegetables such as broccoli, carrots, mushrooms, and bell peppers can be incorporated into both Hunan Chicken and General Tso’s Chicken.
As expected in Asian cuisine, ginger, garlic, soy sauce, oyster sauce, sesame seeds, and rice vinegar are common ingredients in the recipes for both dishes. However, there are distinct elements that set them apart. Hunan chicken relies on doubanjiang, a fermented chili bean paste, for its characteristic heat. General Tso’s chicken, on the other hand, requires sugar to achieve its sweet and spicy flavor profile. The amount of sugar used in Hunan Chicken is significantly lower and is primarily used to balance the flavors rather than to provide sweetness.
Although both dishes use chicken as the main ingredient, the cooking methods differ significantly. For Hunan chicken, the chicken pieces are coated in cornstarch and pan-seared until they are golden brown. This process, known as “velveting,” involves marinating the chicken slices in a mixture that often includes egg whites, vinegar, cornstarch, and baking powder. This technique keeps the chicken tender and juicy when stir-fried.
General Tso’s chicken, on the other hand, is battered and deep-fried until crispy. The fried chicken is then tossed in a sweet and spicy sauce, resulting in a texture that contrasts with Hunan chicken.
Flavors and Textures
The overall flavor profiles of Hunan chicken and General Tso’s chicken are different. Hunan chicken is known for its spiciness, often described as “dry heat,” and it carries spicy notes. In contrast, General Tso’s chicken offers a sweet-spicy flavor combination. The different cooking techniques used in each dish also contribute to the variation in texture. Hunan chicken has a velvety and tender texture due to the velvet process, while General Tso’s chicken has a crispy exterior and moist interior due to the deep-frying process.
A key difference between Hunan Chicken and General Tso’s Chicken is the level of heat. Hunan chicken is known for its spiciness, which reflects the bold flavors of Hunan cuisine. The use of doubanjiang, a fermented chili bean paste, gives the dish a fiery kick. In contrast, General Tso’s chicken tends to be milder in spiciness, with more emphasis on the sweet and savory aspects of the dish.
In summary, while Hunan Chicken and General Tso’s Chicken may appear similar, they have distinct differences in ingredients, cooking techniques, flavors, textures, and spiciness. Hunan chicken showcases the vibrant and spicy flavors of Hunan cuisine, while General Tso’s chicken offers a sweet-spicy blend that has become a staple in the Chinese-American culinary tradition. By understanding these contrasts, you can appreciate the unique characteristics of each dish and choose according to your personal preferences. Whether you crave the fiery heat of Hunan chicken or the harmonious blend of sweet and spicy in General Tso’s chicken, both dishes contribute to the diverse and flavorful landscape of Asian cuisine.
What is the main difference between Hunan Chicken and General Tso’s Chicken?
The main difference is in the flavors and cooking methods. Hunan Chicken is spicier and lacks the sweet flavor found in General Tso’s Chicken. In addition, Hunan chicken is pan-seared (“velveted”) while General Tso’s chicken is deep-fried.
Which is spicier, Hunan Chicken or General Tso’s Chicken?
Hunan chicken is known for its spiciness, often described as “dry heat,” and is generally spicier than General Tso’s chicken. The use of doubanjiang, a fermented chili bean paste, contributes to the fiery kick of Hunan chicken.
What are the common ingredients in Hunan Chicken and General Tso’s Chicken?
Both dishes typically contain boneless chicken, vegetables such as broccoli and bell peppers, ginger, garlic, soy sauce, oyster sauce, sesame seeds, and rice vinegar. However, Hunan chicken uses doubanjiang for heat, while General Tso’s chicken incorporates sugar for its sweet and savory flavor profile.
How are Hunan Chicken and General Tso’s Chicken prepared?
Hunan Chicken is pan-seared after being coated in cornstarch and marinated in a velvety blend. General Tso’s chicken, on the other hand, is battered and deep-fried until crispy. The cooked chicken is then tossed in a sweet and spicy sauce.
Is General Tso’s Chicken a traditional Chinese dish?
No, General Tso’s Chicken is not a traditional Chinese dish. It is a creation of Chinese-American cuisine and was named after a Hunanese general. The dish has evolved and become popular in the United States, with variations using different proteins and adaptations to suit American tastes.
What dish is associated with Hunan cuisine?
Hunan chicken is associated with Hunan cuisine. Hunan cuisine, also known as Xiang cuisine, originated in the Xiang River region of China. It is characterized by spicy flavors and vibrant colors, although it is typically less spicy than Sichuan cuisine.