Food You Can Eat: General Gao’s Tofu

Ok, so first let’s get the name thing out of the way. Lots of people call this dish General Tso’s, but where I grew up it was always General Gao’s, so I’m sticking with that. It’s all romanized Chinese anyway (a fun new term I learned that refers to the use of Roman characters to represent Chinese sounds). As far as I can tell, the dish was originally invented in Taiwan by a chef named Peng Chang-kuei, and he named it in honor of a Hunanese war hero whose name is usually written Zuo Zongtang. Zuo/Tso/Gao… bottom line is we’re crap at writing Chinese with English characters. 

The original dish was apparently pretty drastically different from the one most of us are familiar with today. But a couple of decades after its invention, it made its way to NYC and was adapted to the style of New York Chinese food: crispy and sweet. 

Now this is one of those dishes that when I went vegetarian, I really missed. So when Hachi (those of you who used to be on Clashtalk or The Salad Bowl will remember her) made a post with her recipe for General Gao’s Chicken, I adapted it to tofu. The way I prep and cook the tofu here makes for something very close to what you experience at a Chinese restaurant, but if you want to be healthier, you could probably bake the tofu instead before tossing it into the sauce. 

I will also add that I do not freeze my tofu, but a lot of people like to do that. When you freeze tofu and then thaw it, it changes the texture to something a little chewier and tougher, closer to meat. I don’t prefer it that way, but if that sounds good to you, try it out!

  • 1 package extra firm tofu, cut into 1 inch cubes 
  • Neutral oil
  • Cornstarch (enough to coat tofu, and 1 tbsp for the sauce)
  • 3 tbsp soy sauce
  • 3 tbsp rice vinegar
  • 3 tbsp hoisin sauce
  • 3 tbsp sugar
  • ½ cup water
  • 1.5 – 2 tsp red chili flakes (Depending what kind you use and how fresh, the heat level will vary. You may need to play with this amount to get it just how you like it. I find 2 tsp gives me a pretty spicy result, and I do 1.5 if I’m looking for more like medium.)
  • 1 tbsp minced ginger
  • 3 tbsp minced garlic (You could probably use less than this if you’re not a garlic fiend like me.)
  • Sesame seeds to garnish
  • Cooked rice and steamed broccoli to serve with

Soak the tofu cubes in hot salty water for about 10-15 minutes. This is a tip that I read about that I think upped my tofu game – it seems to let the tofu crisp up more when you pan fry it. Dry the tofu with dish towels or paper towels. Let them sit for a bit to dry out while you prep the sauce. Once dry, toss in a bowl with cornstarch to coat.

Make the sauce in a medium bowl by whisking together the soy sauce, rice vinegar, hoisin sauce, sugar, water, and 1 tbsp cornstarch.

Heat a large skillet over medium with a good amount of oil. Toss in the tofu – you don’t want to overcrowd the pan, so I find I have to do this in two different batches. Toss around every once in a while until they start getting nicely golden brown. Put your tofu to the side on a plate and drain the hot oil from the pan. At this point I usually have little crispy cornstarch bits in my pan that I need to wipe out, otherwise they start smoking.

Add back a small amount of fresh oil. (I seem to have a tendency to smoke up my kitchen, so I also reduce the heat to medium low, but really, most recipes probably recommend doing all of this on high. I just don’t function right at high heat.) Add the ginger, garlic, and chili flakes. Stir for about thirty seconds until fragrant (be aware that if your face is right over those frying chili flakes, it will really make you cough!) and then add the sauce. Let the sauce heat and bubble for a couple minutes and start to thicken up. Reintroduce the tofu and let everything cook together and thicken more, maybe five minutes. Serve with rice and broccoli. Garnish with sesame seeds. 



  1. Have you ever made your own tofu? I did, years ago, just out of boredom and to see if I could. I didn’t have a tofu press and mine came out fine the few times I did it but tofu is so ubiquitous and usually so cheap you don’t really need to exert the effort. I was just curious.
    My friends were very amused that I even attempted such a thing. “Mattie, I…all the meat you eat…you also eat tofu and actually make your own? You do contain mysteries.”

    • I’ve thought about it but never tried! There’s a youtube channel I like, Jun’s Kitchen, where the guy makes gorgeous food and he did one on making your own tofu that had me seriously considering it. He claimed the quality is miles better than store bought, but I questioned that, so I’m glad to hear you say it’s basically the same. 

      • It is all the same to me but 1.) I don’t have that tofu press and 2.) I don’t eat very much of it and when I do it’s so heavily spiced and sauced it doesn’t really need to be anything, just solid filler among the vegetables. If you have the time you could give it a try. What’s always in the back of my mind when I cook is, at some point a long time ago someone was making this. My modest kitchen must be miles beyond what was available in even the grandest houses not that long ago, and if they could do it so can I. 

  2. I never heard of soaking the tofu first. So, you don’t drain the tofu at all? I love tofu but I can never get it crispy like the restaurants. Maybe this is why.

    • I do drain it – I have a step up there for drying it on dish towels. Do you mean I don’t press it? Because yeah, I don’t bother. The whole point of extra firm is that it’s already well pressed. I’ve found when I try to press it, it doesn’t accomplish much other than sometimes making it crumble if it was pressed too hard.
      Crispy tofu can be tricky to achieve, but I do find the salt water soak helps. Also, the cornstarch coating gets you that lovely exterior like it has in a Chinese restaurant. Some people use flour, but I don’t think that works quite as well. 

    I don’t give a fuck what you do, but I’ll stick to General Tso’s Chicken, thanks.

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