During regular hours, Lucas Sin's fast-casual concept Junzi Kitchen bundles the husky flavors of northern China into noodle bowls and bing wraps. But on weekends in New Haven and New York, Junzi transforms into an after-hours hangout with juice box cocktails and a mysterious fried chicken dish known as General Chu’s Chicken – Sin's homage to the Chinese-American classic, General Tso’s.
Sin classifies Chinese-American food as a regional Chinese cuisine. And why not? “It’s made by Chinese people who happen to be in America, and it absolutely abides by Chinese cooking physics. It’s just not food you’ll find in China itself.”
His General Chu’s Chicken recipe in The Illustrated Wok tosses deep-fried hunks of dark meat in an unplaceable sauce that is at once nutty and redolent, tangy and funky. The sauce ingredients celebrate grab-bag diaspora foodways – sweet chilli relish stirred with sesame paste, a dash of black vinegar, a whiff of fermented tofu.
How would you introduce fermented tofu to someone who has never cooked with it?
LUCAS SIN At Junzi, we like to call it furu. Translations like “fermented tofu” or “fermented soy bean curd” seem to turn people off.
Your basic furu 腐乳 is just tofu that’s air-dried under hay and left to sit out until it's fermented. Usually the finished furu comes in a brine with some chilli flakes, but not much seasoning. Like other fermented things in China, the actual formula varies by region, but the variety I favor is nanru 南乳, fermented with red yeast rice and sometimes rose wine, which in Hong Kong we mash into a marinade for fried chicken (南乳炸鸡 nanru zha ji) – a nostalgic Cantonese dish I ate growing up.
In the north, they use a lot of regular furu and meigui furu (玫瑰腐乳 rose furu) for marinades and sauces. Roses or rose extract is added during the final stages of fermentation, which changes the color and makes it a little more floral and sweet. And we blend that into a lot of the sauces we use – not only for the marinades, but also for noodle and stir-fry sauces. One of the most popular sauces at Junzi Kitchen is our furu-sesame sauce. The fermented tofu gives it just a hint of a funky flavor.
When we saw the ingredients for your furu-sesame sauce, we immediately thought of northern-style zhima jiang 芝麻酱, sometimes served with hot pot.
LS Exactly. That’s one reference for the flavor.
Aside from being used as a hot pot dipping sauce, where else does sesame sauce appear in Chinese cuisine?
LS It can be a cold sauce or a hot sauce for noodles. The temperature actually makes a big difference due to the texture of the oil. Sesame noodles are weirdly favored cold in Cantonese restaurants in the US. But you can also use sesame sauce as a dip, for hot pot as well as snacks like deep-fried fish balls or cheong fun.
We can’t think of another dish that mixes sesame sauce with a sweet chilli sauce the way that General Chu’s does.
LS Obviously, General Chu’s Chicken is a riff on perhaps the most important American Chinese dish of all time: General Tso’s Chicken.
The first time I had General Tso’s Chicken, I had no idea what was going on. I could identify sugar, soy, and corn starch. Other than that, it could have been ketchup, Sriracha, oyster sauce, anything. I didn’t have a clue. And that surprise, that sense that anything can go into a General Tso’s sauce was an inspiration for our General Chu’s sauce.
I reached for whatever I could find that would make fried chicken extra delicious, and I found furu: a little bit of funk, a little bit of nostalgia, and a little bit of curiosity. As for the sweet chilli sauce, I wanted to maintain American Chinese food’s signature delectable sweetness, which is why that’s there.
You’ve spoken about food as a narrative medium. What story does General Chu’s tell?
LS Well, the story about General Tso’s Chicken (or General Chao’s, or General Gau’s) is that the guy who invented it doesn’t even recognize the dish any more. And he had named it after a guy who didn’t know the dish was named after him. There’s so much mythology behind how the chicken came to be.
The dish itself is ubiquitous, and not because some secret Chinese restaurant headquarters declared, “This is how it’s going to be made from here on out.” It migrated through unspoken collaborations within a diaspora that happens to base a lot of its economy in restaurants. The recipes spread organically from somebody’s cousin to somebody’s uncle and onward throughout the United States.
Our General Chu’s chicken celebrates those same qualities. I named it after my first general manager who ran our restaurant in New Haven. He didn’t know until we put the posters up. He came in one day like, “Wait, what?” People started texting and emailing him for the recipe for his chicken, and he was all mixed up, saying, “I have nothing to do with that chicken. I don’t recognize it. I don’t even fry chicken that way at home. I have my own recipe, and I do it Korean-style.”
In New Haven especially, General Chu’s has become an object of almost cultish fascination. We’re by Yale, so all of these students come in going, “O-o-oh, can we get the General Chu’s chicken?” And someone’s like, “Not Chu’s, it’s General Chao’s,” and then, “No, no, no, it’s General Chu’s!” Nobody knows how to pronounce it or knows really what it is. But after they eat it a couple times, it becomes something familiar to come back for – an odd, indecipherable mix of sticky, funky, sesame.
So far, General Chu’s Chicken has made it to the late-night menu for both of our locations, and remains a signature dish. Hopefully, someone will taste it someday and say to themselves, “No, the batter should be done this way.” And they’ll go home and tweak the dish, while carrying on some of the original characteristics of General Chu’s. That would be amazing.
Photos courtesy of Junzi Kitchen. Get the General Chu’s Chicken recipe in The Illustrated Wok.