Hunan Chicken vs. General Tso: Differences & Which Is Better?

Hunan Chicken vs. General Tso
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As any Chinese food fanatic knows, the world of Chinese takeaway is a vast and delicious one. But the two dishes that stand out are Hunan chicken and General Tso. These two dishes have long been considered rivals, and for both connoisseurs and novices alike, it may be difficult to tell them apart. So what is the difference between Hunan chicken and General Tso?

Hunan chicken offers a more robust flavor, emphasizing spiciness and the lingering presence of garlic and ginger. General Tso is generally sweeter with a mix of flavors from the hoisin-based sauce. Whatever you choose, both offer a great way to experience Chinese flavors while pleasing your taste buds. 

You might be familiar with these two most popular Chinese dishes. While it’s easy to mistake these dishes as one and the same, there are actually quite a few differences between the two. That’s why I will list all the differences and help you decide whether Hunan chicken or General Tso is better for you.

Origin of Hunan Chicken and General Tso

Let’s start with their origins. The origins of Hunan and General Tso are both steeped in history. Hunan chicken is a dish that originated in Hunan, a province in south-central China, where Chef Peng Chang-Kuei created the dish during the 1940s. The dish came to the USA in the 1970s, and it is known for its bold and spicy flavors. 

The name General Tso was first seen on menus in New York City and honored a famous military figure from the 1800s, Zuo Zongtang, who hailed from the same Hunan province. 

A Taiwanese chef, Peng Chang-kuai, invented the dish for the then-Governor of Hunan province in the 1950s. This dish is characterized by its sweet-and-sour flavor profile.

Differences in Ingredients and Preparation

Generally speaking, Hunan chicken typically uses a combination of chicken, garlic, onions, ginger, and chili peppers for its base ingredients. It also contains oyster sauce and a bit of sugar for a hint of sweetness. The result is a spicier kick to the overall flavor than what you would find in General Tso.

On the other hand, General Tso features crispy deep-fried chicken tossed in sweet chili sauce with a hint of garlic. Many also use white or brown sugar or even honey. It depends on one’s preferences.

Some recipes also call for sesame seeds as toppings, while others don’t – it varies based on regional preference and style. These ingredients give each dish its own unique flavor profile that sets it apart from one another.

When it comes to preparing the dishes, Hunan chicken is stir-fried in a wok with the ingredients mentioned above and various vegetables, while General Tso’s is usually deep-fried at high temperatures with a sauce made from soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil, and rice wine vinegar. The deep-frying process also gives General Tso its golden hue and crunchy texture.

It’s important to note that both dishes are incredibly popular in Chinese cuisine and have their own unique appeal based on taste and preference. It really just depends on what type of flavor profile you’re looking for – spicy or sweet.

Taste Comparison

When it comes to taste, Hunan chicken and General Tso differ quite a bit. 

Hunan chicken is known for its intense spiciness and bold flavors, with an emphasis on garlic, ginger, and chilies. The dish is usually served with a bright red or orange color due to the chili peppers used in preparation. Its flavor is often described as aromatic and complex.

General Tso is much sweeter than Hunan chicken and is often characterized by its thick, dark sauce made from soy sauce, vinegar, garlic, and ginger. The dish is usually served with a deep red color thanks to the addition of chili peppers and other dark sauces. Its flavor profile has been described as rich and spicy-sweet.


What Does General Tso Taste Like? It’s Everything at Once!

Ultimately, choosing between these two dishes really boils down to your individual tastes. 

Hunan chicken is known for being quite spicy and flavorful due to the addition of dried red chilies, while General Tso tends to be slightly sweeter thanks to the subtle addition of sugar in its sauce. Those who enjoy spicier flavors will likely prefer the bolder taste of Hunan chicken, while those who prefer milder flavors will likely prefer the sweetness of General Tso.

Serving Styles

Serving Hunan Chicken and General Tso

Regarding the use of Hunan chicken and General Tso, both are served with rice or noodles and could be an excellent option for both lunch and dinner. Hunan chicken is more intensely flavored and spicier, so it usually stands out better on the plate than General Tso does when served as a side dish.

The former also has a more dynamic flavor profile that can stand up to other dishes with competing flavors. In contrast, the latter often gets lost in accompaniment with other dishes. Additionally, Hunan chicken is a quicker dish to prepare since it’s traditionally cooked as stir-fry, whereas General Tso requires deeper frying.

Hunan chicken needs just enough sweetness to balance out the heat of its spices while still retaining its boldness; however, General Tso needs greater amounts of sugar and vinegar in the sauce to make it sweet because its ingredients are much milder than those in Hunan chicken. 

Since there are fewer vegetables in General Tso chicken, you can serve it with red or green bell peppers, zucchini, carrots, cabbage, or baby corn. You would serve Hunan chicken with mushrooms, broccoli, or cucumbers, and vegetables like these, which are more refreshing and neutral in taste.

When considering the various distinctions between these two dishes, it becomes clear that they have different uses and applications in Chinese cuisine.

Popular Variations

When it comes to Hunan chicken and General Tso, there are countless variations. Each of these dishes can be altered based on the ingredients used and the variety of spices applied.

Popular versions of Hunan chicken include a combination of diced red bell pepper, hot chili oil, garlic, and ginger. Other variations may also include a touch of sugar or honey to balance out the spiciness. Some chefs add peanuts, sesame seeds, onions, or mushrooms to give layers of unique flavors and textures.

Regarding General Tso, some chefs add diced celery or crunchy vegetables such as carrots – creating a balance between sweet and spicy flavors. 

Others enhance the dish by adding a variety of sauces, such as hoisin sauce or soy sauce, to create depth in flavor. To further heighten the nuttiness in the dish, some recipes call for Szechuan peppercorns or garlic-infused oil as an alternative to chili peppers.

Hunan Chicken vs. General Tso: Which Is Better?

The decision between Hunan chicken and General Tso comes down to personal preference. The two dishes differ in many ways, so it’s hard to say that one of them is better than the other.

Hunan chicken is a spicy dish that originated in central China and is typically made with chili peppers and garlic that provide a kick of flavor. On the other hand, General Tso is an Americanized version of a Hunan-style dish with a sweet and savory sauce and chili peppers.

Taste-wise, most people agree that Hunan chicken has a bolder heat thanks to its various chili peppers, while General Tso has more complex flavors thanks to its sweeter notes from sugar and soy sauce.

So, if you prefer a bolder flavor profile with more of a spicy kick, then Hunan chicken might be right for you. On the other hand, if you enjoy more of a sweet-and-sour taste sensation in your Chinese cuisine, then General Tso may be a better choice.

As with most culinary debates, who says one dish is better than the other? Ultimately, you get to decide what tastes better to you.

DifferencesHunan ChickenGeneral Tso
OriginHunan – a south-central China provinceChina
Key Ingredients and PreparationChili bean paste, oyster sauce – stir-friedChili peppers, sugar – deep-fried
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