General Tso Was a Closet Vegetarian

Recipe: General Tso's Cauliflower "Chicken"

I’m really confused these days.

I wish I could say this was just a new year thing, but if I’m honest, I’ve been in a bit of a daze since last March. (You, too?)

Much of my day is spent asking myself, “Who am I? What am I doing?” I don’t mean it in an existential way; I mean that I’ve literally forgotten why I’ve walked into the room.

Yesterday I fell off a ladder. I didn’t lose my balance; I just forgot I was on a ladder and stepped right off it. (It was more of a step stool. I’m fine.)

Pandemic and political stressors aside, I feel similarly dazed and confused when I travel in French Canada.

You know you’re in North America, but all of a sudden you can’t understand any of the signs. And some of the place names seem to be mocking you (I’m looking at you, Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha!).

To be fair, some Canadian road signs have no words on them in any language, and many travelers make an amusing game out of interpreting them.

My and my husband’s lack of functional French language skills has also led to us accidentally eating the wrong thing while traveling in Quebec. During a weekend road trip in June 2019, we spotted a lovely little bistro with patio seating and thought we’d stop for an early dinner. Mike was craving Chinese food, which can be tough to find in tiny little French Canadian towns, and he was delighted to see General Tso’s chicken on the menu.

His entrée arrived, and he eagerly tucked into it. About halfway through, he said, “Would you try this? I don’t think it’s chicken.”

“Is it good?” I asked warily.

“It’s delicious,” he said. “I just don’t know what it is.”

Not knowing what I was heading into, I hesitantly tried a small bite. “It’s cauliflower,” I informed him.

After an awkward exchange of our rudimentary French with our server’s limited English (this was a very French French-Canadian township), we learned we were, in fact, dining in a vegetarian restaurant.

While the General Tso chicken wasn’t chicken, there’s no General Tso anyway, you know. At least not one who is directly tied to the spicy-sweet stir fry dish that can be found in practically every Chinese restaurant in the United States.

Mike and I watched a fascinating documentary a few years ago called The Search for General Tso about the history of Chinese food in America, and it highlighted the fact that Americans enjoy bastardized versions of Chinese food that are heavy on sugar and not much like real Chinese cuisine, which tends to be lighter, brighter, and very vegetable-forward.

And since the General Tso of stir fry fame is fictional, who’s to say he wasn’t also a vegetarian?

My version of non-chicken General Tso’s chicken may still be slightly sweet in the American fashion, but by replacing the chicken with cauliflower florets, we’re at least moving back in the vegetal direction you find when you’re dining in China.

And if you give it a French name, your family and friends may never know the chicken is missing.


General Tso’s Cauliflower “Chicken”

We’re substituting cauliflower florets for chicken in this version, which makes it a great vegetarian or Meatless Monday option. You can also cook the coated florets in your air fryer at 370° for approximately 9 to 11 minutes with a few spritzes of vegetable oil as you turn the pieces during cooking. When they’re golden brown, take them out and coat them in the General Tso sauce.

Sauce:
1 tablespoon sesame oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 scallion, thinly sliced
3-5 whole dried red chilies (based on your preference for heat)
3 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
2 teaspoons minced ginger or 0.25 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
1 tablespoon cornstarch, dissolved in 2 tablespoons cold water

Batter:
2 large eggs
1/4 teaspoon salt
Freshly-ground pepper
1 pound cauliflower cut into bite-sized florets
2/3 cup cornstarch
2 tablespoons flour

2 to 3 cups of peanut oil or vegetable oil for frying
Sliced scallions, orange wedges, and sesame seeds for serving

To make the sauce, heat sesame oil in a medium saucepan over high heat. Add garlic, scallion, and chilies and fry for one to two minutes until the chilies begin to brighten in color. Add soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, ginger, sugar, and water and bring to boil. Reduce heat to low and add cornstarch slurry, whisking to combine. Simmer on low for 3 to 5 minutes until thickened, stirring frequently. Remove from heat and cover to keep warm.

In a medium-sized bowl, beat eggs. Add salt and a few cranks of freshly-ground pepper. Coat cauliflower in egg mixture. Add cornstarch and flour, turning with tongs to coat cauliflower thoroughly.

In a wok, dutch oven, or heavy pot, heat oil to 375°. Working in batches, fry the cauliflower in a single layer until lightly browned (approximately 5 to 6 minutes), turning halfway through. Using a spider or long-handled slotted spoon, remove the cauliflower to a paper towel-lined plate or to a cooling rack placed over a rimmed baking sheet to drain excess oil.

Toss fried cauliflower with sauce to coat evenly. Sprinkle with sesame seeds and scallions and garnish with orange slices. Serve immediately. Makes two entrée-sized servings.


This week’s recipes for subscribers only:

  • Easy Chinese chili oil: You’ll want a spoonful with everything.

  • Perfect steamed rice: Two simple tricks that work every single time.