You know you’re more American than Chinese when you’ve succumbed to the cheerfully sweet, garlicky appeal of those fried nuggets of chicken lacquered in shiny amber sauce sold in Chinese-American eateries around the country under names like “General Tso’s” or “sesame.” Hard then to resist this smart, simple recipe for “mall chicken” from Lucky Peach Presents 101 Easy Asian Recipes, which is a wholesome version of this food court favorite, without the frying or the MSG.
This sweet-sour dish isn’t authentic Chinese food, of course, but a strong element of sweet is integral to many authentic Asian favorites, from Japanese teriyaki to Korean barbecue to Thai sweet chili sauce.
In the way you would never find American-style spaghetti with meatballs in Italy, you would not find this specific chicken in China. But there are dishes, like a twice-cooked pork that my mom makes, that feature a sweet-tart sauce not dissimilar to this, though more as a light glaze than a spoonable sauce.
And that is what is so great about this first cookbook effort from the people who produce quarterly food magazine Lucky Peach (Peter Meehan, formerly of the New York Times and David Chang of the Momofuku restaurant group; “lucky peach” being the translation of the Japanese momofuku). The cookbook bills itself as “100% inauthentic,” but the recipes are mostly grounded in real Asian traditions. They’ve eliminated the frying – a messy reality of authentic Chinese cooking – and simplified preparations for Asian dishes with current appeal.
Real Chinese cookbooks are a mix of the familiar and the scary, with names that don’t benefit from translation (“pungent and hot soup”; “stir-fried fibrous vegetables”; “strange-flavored chicken”) or questionable ingredients (squab; luffa squash; brains). But the Lucky Peach cookbook has a well-picked selection of appealing dishes from across Asian cuisines, with recipes specifically adapted for home cooks.
The cookbook maintains an intentionally campy look reminiscent of authentically awful Chinese cookbook design and photography. It makes me laugh, but ruefully – to non-Asians it’s a wry joke, but if you’re really Asian, part of you is genuinely cringing.
Bad photography notwithstanding, the content is legit. Some reviewers have dismissed the dessert recipe “Oranges” as a Chinese restaurant joke, but in truth it is a real Asian tradition to close out a meal with fresh fruit – oranges often, but also melon, pineapple or mango. It’s a sweet finish, a palate cleanser, and a means to prolong the meal and the conversation.
But back to our home version of takeout chicken, surprisingly easy to make and not surprisingly pleasing to adults and kids alike.
The sauce ingredients are conveniently basic: soy sauce, ketchup, vinegar, honey and garlic. You can always embellish with fresh ginger, or hot chile. (The Lucky Peach recipe has brown sugar too, but I find the honey is plenty.)
Coat the chicken pieces with cornstarch, which creates a light crust on the surface of the chicken as well as helps to thicken the sauce.
Quickly pan-sear the chicken pieces in a hot skillet, then remove the pieces (not fully cooked) to a baking dish.
Pour the prepared sauce over the chicken pieces and mix to coat before baking.
Twenty minutes later, a big pan of chicken is ready. Super easy.
Sprinkle with sesame seeds if you like. Serve with rice and, for fuller effect, a pile of tender-crisp broccoli.
Chinese Takeout Chicken
It’s hard to resist the cheerfully sweet, garlicky appeal of those fried nuggets of chicken lacquered in shiny amber sauce sold in Chinese-American eateries around the country under names like “General Tso’s” or “sesame.” This smart, simple recipe for “mall chicken” from Lucky Peach Presents 101 Easy Asian Recipes is a wholesome version of this food court favorite, without the frying or the MSG.
- 1/3 cup honey
- 1/4 cup ketchup
- 3 tablespoons soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar or white vinegar
- 3-4 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs or breasts, or a mix
- Kosher salt (1/2 teaspoon, more or less)
- 1/4 cup cornstarch
- 2 tablespoons cooking oil
- 2 tablespoons sesame seeds, for topping
- Heat the oven to 375 degrees F.
- Mix the sauce in a bowl: honey, ketchup, soy sauce, vinegar and garlic. Set aside.
- Rinse and pat dry chicken. Trim off excess fat or stray bone. Cut chicken into 1″ pieces and place in a bowl. Season with a bit of salt and dust with cornstarch, mixing to coat the pieces.
- Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a large skillet over high heat. Working in batches, sear the chicken on both sides until a light crust forms on the surface (the chicken will not be cooked through). Add a bit more oil between batches if necessary. Transfer the chicken to a baking dish (a 9″x13″ dish works fine for 2 pounds of chicken).
- Pour the sauce over the chicken and mix to coat the pieces. Bake until the chicken is cooked through and the sauce is bubbling and thick, about 20 minutes. Sprinkle with sesame seeds and serve.
- To spice things up, add dried chile pepper to the sauce. Chinese cooks would add whole dried chile peppers, maybe broken in half for added heat. But you can also simply add crushed red pepper flakes to taste.
- Add fresh ginger, if you like – minced into sauce for a stronger flavor, or add a couple of slices into the sauce for milder flavor (remove before serving).
Here’s the link to a printable version.