Hey!! Remember that one time you decided you were going to be a vegan? You know, that year right before you began culinary school?
That’s because you’re not an idiot.
I, on the other hand, I was an idiot.
I briefly mentioned in the cookbook the time I was a 110lb. (broke) recent high school graduate, turned Rastafarian who decided that the year before going to culinary school was the “perfect” time to go vegan.
Yes. Idiot may be too kind of a word, actually. This recipe for General Tso’s “Chicken” is the only thing in my life that made sense during that troubling, famishing time.
I was 17 year-old who was in love with Bob Marley’s spirit, and I decided that I should become a full-fledged Rasta. Now, I know what you’re thinking, “Girl, please! You just wanted an excuse to smoke weed!!!” Firstly, I’m offended. Secondly, I didn’t need an excuse to smoke weed. Just kidding!! I wasn’t a fan of the stuff. I may or may not have experienced it once and saw gargoyles sitting on my wall…it turned me off from it forever. But, I was a young woman in the throes of a quarter-life crisis; a young woman searching for purpose, meaning and religion. For some reason, still unbeknownst to me, Rastafarianism was what stuck.
Eschewing makeup was the first (and hardest) thing I did; most makeup is made with pork by-products, so they were out. In an attempt to live as close to nature as possible, which gross though it was for me, I stopped shaving my legs; razors aren’t found in nature, and all that. I donned a head-wrap. I vowed never to go without a head covering out of modesty, as well as adhering to the belief that a woman’s hair was her glory and therefore worthy of guarding. You know, because guys were really desperate to ogle the hair of a chick who had hairy legs and sported dark circles because concealer was demonic, you know? Of course, I bought stock in wooden bangles and loaded up on Patchouli incense. I cut out all meats, as well as all processed foods and dairy. Any self-respecting Rasta was compelled to observe an Ital diet and veganism was the way to go.
Now what, exactly, I was doing for the benefit of my soul and spirituality, was something that never crossed my nutrient-deprived mind. Jah-Jah was going make my life irieshun once I cut out all the evil from Babylon that I had been wallowing in up ’til now. Rastafari! Right?!? Well…no.
I was hungry. I was hungry and I was making myself sick. My “spiritual awakening” was occurring before the advent of the, “Veganism is Cool,” movement. No one was around to offer advice on the little things like, well… NUTRITION!?! Sure, “skinny-as-a-beanpole, menstruating eighteen-year-old who already couldn’t afford a decent meal,” go right on ahead and cut out proteins, and fiber, and vitamins, and minerals and…SUSTENANCE! Should work out beautifully!
But, beautiful had no parts in what was going on with me. Shoo’, chile. Not even a little bit.
Thankfully, my desperation forced me to develop a sense of creativity. I don’t know exactly when it happened, but somewhere between licking a gum wrapper I found under a bed and attempting to grasp one of the many floating light-switches in my apartment through a hunger-induced haze; I decided I was going to have to be smarter about this
hunger strike “veganism” thing if I was going to survive it. Like, legit, I was going to kill myself if I kept it up.
After a long day at school, dodging chef instructors who insisted we must try everything we prepare, “Yes, even you hippie-Rasta-girl!” I walked past my local Chinese carryout restaurant. The smells wafting from inside had me wanting to lick the grimy, soot-covered window. It took me back to my younger years. Having roots firmly planted in New York City means I’ve tasted some of the best Chinese food America has to offer. General Tso’s Chicken was always my go-to. Did I know how to pronounce it? No. I faltered between, “General Toe-Sow” and “General Sews”. When I went to Chinatown, I’d get really fancy with it and bust out with a, “General TAOW?!?!?!” (Making my order an exclamatory and interrogative one at the same time made me sound like a Kung Fu Panda reject, but I think the Chinese take-out guy appreciated the flair.)
Needless to say, chicken wasn’t a part of my ital diet, so that made the original off-limits. I had heard tale of a food product that people consumed that was made of soybean curds pressed together like cheese. This “tofu” was repulsive to me the first time I tasted it. Granted, I was eating silken tofu prepared in the most obscene, God-awful way- in a “cheesecake”.
But, I would never bastardize so great a dish as cheesecake with that “tofu”. I set out to create a tofu recipe which would satisfy the yearning for my beloved American-Chinese takeout dish, and keep me from sneaking into the kitchen of some random back alley dive to lick the grease traps.
You’ll notice I keep referring to it as, “American-Chinese.” I genuinely doubt that General Tso’s chicken is an authentically Chinese dish. None of the research I’ve done on it has produced any native Chinese roots. Canal Street roots, more believable; but definitely not Ming Dynasty roots, nah. My General Tso’s Vegan “Chicken” is a play on the authentic in a, surprisingly, edible way. We’ve coated the FIRM, twice-pressed, tofu in a cornstarch batter which gives it an amazing crunch; even after being bathed in the sweet and spicy tamari-based sauce.
After making it for this blog post, the Twinks had almost finished both helpings they asked for before I revealed they had eaten General Tso’s Vegan “Chicken” and not the real deal. A slight look of betrayal crossed their face…as they slipped the last of the tofu into their mouths. Greed trumps indignation, Homies. Every. Single. Time.
So, what happened to my Rastafarian ways? Well, I held out for three long years before Hector, AKA The Soldier, happened. When we started dating, he suffered in silence for all of about three months. The day he finally broke, he sobbed, “I just want a pork chop!! PLEASE!!!”
Poor guy. I fried him up some pork chops and, somehow, ended up sucking the marrow out of a bone that was snatched from Hector’s hand! I have no idea how it happened. Must’ve slipped, or something. Thankfully, now that I’ve perfected the General Tso’s Vegan “Chicken” recipe, he enjoys whenever I make it.
Pin the recipe to make later and check out these other vegetarian recipes (they’re hard to come by ’round these parts):
General Tso's Vegan "Chicken"
- 1 14 oz package of firm or extra firm tofu, pressed and cubed (see note)
- kosher salt to taste
- freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 1 cup cornstarch
- 1/4 cup orange juice freshly squeezed, preferably
- 1/4 cup vegetable broth chicken broth is okay if you're not vegan
- 2 cups canola or peanut oil for frying
- 1 tbsp cornstarch
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 1/2 cup vegetable broth
- 1/4 cup tamari or soy sauce
- 1/4 cup orange juice
- 2 tbsp sesame oil
- 1 tbsp rice wine vinegar
- 2 tsp orange zest
- 4 green onions thinly sliced (1 tbsp reserved for garnish)
- 2 cloves garlic minced
- 1 " piece of fresh ginger minced
- 2 small oriental chili peppers dried are perfect
- Jasmine rice
- Stir-fried broccoli florets or green beans
- Liberally season the cubed tofu with salt and pepper. I typically use 1 tbsp of salt and 2 tsps of black pepper, but feel free to adjust to your taste. Set aside.
- In a medium-size mixing bowl, combine 1 cup of cornstarch, the orange juice and vegetable stock. Mix with your fingers to ensure you have the right consistency. It should cover your fingers with a slightly-opaque coating. If the batter feels like sand in the middle, or is too stiff, add more broth; but don't add more than 1/4 cup of orange juice or the tofu will taste too sweet. Set aside.
- In a large frying pan or wok (I ain't gotta a wok), heat the canola oil over medium high heat. Add a drop of the cornstarch batter to test the oil's temp. It should begin to sizzle and rise to the top within 3 seconds.
- Place a handful of tofu cubes into the cornstarch batter and coat each piece evenly. It will feel funny because the cornstarch tends to lump up, however, when you remove the tofu, the excess should run off freely. Carefully place the tofu pieces into the hot oil. This may get messy, but don't crowd your pan; you want to make sure the temperature of the oil doesn't drop so low that it causes the tofu's coating to turn soggy (yuck).
- Once you've added all the batch of tofu you're working with, allow them to fry, undisturbed, for 3-4 minutes. You should be able to turn them without struggling to release them from the pan. If you find yourself having to tug at them or scrape them from the pan, leave them to fry a little while longer. Prying them from the pan may cause the batter to separate and make your "chicken" look ugly.
- Fry the tofu for a total of 8 minutes. After frying carefully remove from the pan and drain on paper towels. No need to keep them warm as you will reheat them in the sauce. Repeat the battering and frying process until you've cooked all the tofu. *If your cornstarch batter begins to dry out, add more broth to thin it*
- Once all of your tofu has been fried, empty your pan of all but 1 tbsp of the oil. Set aside (off the heat) while you mix the ingredients for your sauce.
- In a medium-size mixing bowl, combine the cornstarch and the sugar. Whisk together to combine before adding the broth, tamari, orange juice, sesame oil, rice wine vinegar and orange zest. Whisk well to ensure the cornstarch is lump free and well-blended.
- Heat your pan, or wok, over high heat and stir fry the greens onions for 1 minute. Add the garlic, ginger and the peppers. Try not to stand directly over the pan after you add the peppers or the fumes make make you wheeze! Fry for 1 minute, stirring constantly.
- Add the sauce liquid and cook for 1-2 minutes or until the sauce starts to thicken, stirring constantly to prevent it from sticking. If the sauces thickens too much, thin it with a tbsp of water until it reaches the consistency of pancake syrup.
- Reduce the heat to medium and add the fried tofu.
- Warm the tofu for 3-4 minutes.
- Spoon over cooked rice and serve with steamed broccoli that's been sautéed with garlic and ginger in a bit of sesame oil.
- Firm tofu is usually pretty well-pressed. Since we want to make this as close to real chicken as possible, I press it a second time after draining it. I don't eat tofu often enough to justify investing in a tofu press, so I place the drained tofu into a fine mesh colander and set a clean plate on top of it. Then I find the heaviest object in my kitchen (a granite mortar and pestle) and put that on top of the plate to gently squeeze any remaining moisture out of the tofu. I pat dry with a paper towel and it's ready to use.
- The chili peppers mentioned here are commonly found in the ethnic food's section of your supermarket. Dried chilies are perfect for this because you don't have to stress about using them up before they go bad. Since they sit in the liquids for a time, and are later cooked in the liquids, they'll rehydrate and release just enough heat to enhance the dish.