There are some cravings that only that iconic white box of Chinese-American takeout will satisfy. We're no strangers to the stuff—many's the night we've spent in front of the TV, inhaling a truly shocking amount of beef with broccoli and fried rice. But, as much as we love the ease and convenience of calling in our favorite dishes from the neighborhood spot—ideally while riding the train on the way home, so the food is five minutes away once we walk in the door—homemade versions of takeout standbys are not only possible but often tastier than the originals they copy.
Especially if you're not blessed with a really good Chinese-American restaurant close by, having the recipes to make your own sesame chicken or crab rangoons can open up a whole world of fun dinner options to scratch that very specific itch. Here are our DIY takes on 10 staples of Chinese takeout, including General Tso's and kung pao chicken, scallion pancakes, vegetable chow mein, and more.
Recipes abound for General Tso's chicken, one of the most iconic dishes in the takeout canon. All of them, however, seem to consist of chicken fried in a crispy shell, then tossed in a sweet, glossy sauce flavored with garlic, ginger, dried chilies, soy sauce, and sesame oil, among other ingredients. Our biggest complaint about the formula is that overly sugary sauce, which we balance in this recipe with a good amount of vinegar. A couple of tablespoons of vodka and a little marinade added to the batter result in a supremely crunchy, well-textured coating.
Once you've mastered our technique for a crispety, crunchety coating on takeout-style fried chicken, you can easily replicate a number of favorites on the buffet line. To turn our General Tso's recipe into sesame chicken, we simply change the sauce, adding extra sugar and sesame oil and omitting the chilies. Be sure to toast those sesame seeds before adding them, and sprinkle them both throughout the sauce and over the finished dish.
If you've eaten a typical dish of takeout orange chicken any time recently, you might recall an orange-tinted sauce with very little resembling fruit flavor. Here, we create better, more complex flavor in our orange sauce by incorporating citrus three ways: fresh orange juice, grated zest, and dried peel. That last ingredient adds a depth that you can't get from fresh juice and zest alone.
Our original attempt at real-deal Chinese kung pao chicken, adapted from a recipe by a Sichuan chef working in Boston, gets its mouth-numbing heat from Sichuan peppercorns. So does the kung pao chicken from Kenji's book, based on the version he tried in Sichuan Province. This Chinese-American take, meanwhile, is much less spicy, with cubes of chicken in a thick, slightly gloppy sauce, permeated by a gentle heat. It's a quick and easy recipe, too: Just stir-fry marinated diced chicken with roasted peanuts, diced celery and peppers, ginger, and red Chinese or árbol chilies, then coat it all in a mixture of soy sauce, chicken broth, vinegar, sesame oil, sugar, and cornstarch. Dinner's on the table in 30 minutes.
The problem with so many steam-table iterations of this dish lies in the broccoli: It's too often mushy and bland. To keep it crisp and flavorful here, and get a good sear on the strips of beef without overcooking them, we stir-fry the ingredients over very high heat, using a wok or a wok insert over a grill.
As former Serious Eats editor Adam Kuban put it, crab rangoons, those little parcels of creamy filling surrounded by crunchy shell, are "just a big ol' excuse for crazy non-Chinese people to eat deep-fried cream cheese." And it's true—but that admission doesn't make them any less delicious. At your local Chinese-American joint, the crab rangoons are almost certainly made with surimi, those artificially colored sticks of reconstituted fish that you find in California rolls. Using real crab instead will give the dumplings a more assertive fish flavor; stick with surimi if you'd like to re-create the "crab" puffs of your youth.
Anyone who's spent a significant amount of time in or around New York City should be intimately familiar with scallion pancakes, the flaky, savory disks studded with chopped scallions and fried. We use a laminated dough here (much as you would if making puff pastry) to create layer upon layer of very thin sheets of flavorful pastry. Frying them in oil is traditional; for a puffier, crispier experience, try cooking them on the grill.
Done right, takeout fried rice is a thing of satisfying, well-balanced beauty. But it's frequently served clumpy and over-sauced, or, worse, bland and oily. Making it at home gives you more control over the final dish, plus it's a great way to use up leftovers. Our approach busts a few myths—no, your rice doesn't have to be medium-grain, or day-old, for that matter. While this version calls for vegetables, like carrots and peas, you can easily bulk it up with pork, kimchi and Spam, Thai-style crab, chicken, or your protein and garnishes of choice.
Chow mein is another Chinese-American standard that's so easy to make at home and customize to your liking, you may never feel the need to order it again. For this DIY version, we quickly cook vegetables (chives, julienned carrots and scallions, bean sprouts) and tofu in a wok, then combine them with long, slender chow mein noodles and a soy-based sauce. Add extra vegetables, more tofu, or meat to turn it into a heartier meal.
Heftier and chewier than chow mein, lo mein noodles are rarely accompanied by more than tiny bits of vegetables and meat when served takeout-style; what starts out delicious can wind up monotonous by the last bite. These stir-fried lo mein noodles get an injection of brightness from a mixture of crisp purple and Napa cabbage and julienned carrots. We soak the slivers of pork in baking soda before browning them, lending the meat a tender and juicy texture.
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