Thursday, 4 July 2013

Michelina's Signature General Tao Chicken

Considering that Marco Polo visited China back in 1266, you'd think in this day and age you could get a decent plate of Chinese food somewhere in Italy. But that's not the case. Back when I visited Florence, I found one Chinese food restaurant and every dish tasted like olive oil and the chow mein noodles were spaghetti. And when I asked for chopsticks there was a general murmuring before a hush fell across the room as I maneuvered the food to my mouth and it felt as if I had just proclaimed that the Medici were just a bunch of fart-sniffing miscreants with good taste in art, pantaloons and snazzy skullcaps. With this memory still fresh in my misfiring synapses after all these many years, I realized it was best to sit back and let the Italian/Chinese food come to me rather than me go to it. Why be Marco Polo when I could be Mark the Couch Potato and reap the rewards of other people's efforts? Which is why I had high hopes for Mama Michelina and her new line of Asian-inspired frozen entrees. If any Italian could do Chinese food right, Michelina, a division of Bellisio Foods, started by Jeno Paulucci (Michelina was his mother's name) in Minnesota, could. On further investigation of Mr. Paulucci, I was amazed to discover that he started the Chun King line of canned Chinese foods back in the 1940's and my immediate reaction was "Holy Toledo, this is the Italian Chinese food I never managed to find in Italy but it was right under my very nose all this time." I actually spoke these words out loud to the computer screen like the moron that I am. In a note of irony, Mr. Paulucci was criticized for moving his pizza roll plant (another of his food creations) and the 1200 jobs that went with it from Duluth, Minnesota to Jackson, Ohio, which is only 89 miles from Toledo, Ohio (about 1 hour and 28 minutes driving time), so when I exclaimed "Holy Toledo," it was almost like a bit of post-foreshadowing of past history that I was yet to discover only minutes later in my research. But pizza rolls are one thing and Chinese food another and I wasn't going to hold it against Mr. Paulucci (now deceased) for his pizza roll indiscretions when General Tao's Chicken was on the menu. I'm a big fan of this chicken dish that oddly, no one in China has ever heard of, but seems to have begun in New York City with roots in Hunan cooking by two different expatriate cooks, both who still vie for bragging rights as the originator the dish. It's a tale of American ingenuity and entrepreneurship, steeped in history and bitter rivalry, a veritable Great Gatsby of poultry if Gatsby had been a Chinese immigrant and the Jazz Age were replaced with 70's Times Square topless bars and disco music. And spicy-sweet chicken of course. I was intrigued to see the package spelling as General Tao as opposed to General Tso, the name I'm more familiar with on the $4.99 lunch menu at some of the hole-in-the-walls I frequent, but I'll take Tao over Tso any day because one is just a name and the other reflects an enlightened path and a way of being, even if that pure way simply results in deep-fried breaded chicken. All I can say is that I think General Tso or Tao, a Qing Dynasty bigwig from Hunan Province in the 1800's, would be amazed to this day to find that his name is affiliated with sweet and spicy poultry invented in New York City. Such is the intriguing weave of history and the fact that that history has led to the ultimate homage in the realm of food production in the form of a frozen entree available to millions, certainly leading General Tao (if he were still alive today) to believe he had truly conquered the world. So as I popped this thing in the microwave it was with humility and reverence for all that has gone before me, the march of time, the Tao of poultry and the humble origins of one of the greatest Asian dishes to find its way into the hearts and minds of hungry North Americans. That's a big reputation for Mama Michelina to live up to and so I wasn't surprised when she fell somewhat short of the mark. Nevertheless, it was a valiant effort and I was left somewhat surprised, considering how the dish first looked as it emerged from the microwave. Firstly, there wasn't enough broccoli to keep a pygmy rabbit happy. Two tiny droopy pieces fighting for their lives amongst the sauce and rice. Those pygmy rabbits would be pleased though with the carrot shards which were far more plentiful and even retained a bit of crunchiness. I wish I could say the same for the chicken, which, I'm given to understand regarding this dish, is supposed to have a crispy coating enclosing the tender, succulent poultry inside. And the chicken should be front and centre, not standing offstage like a bitter understudy, limp with despair and hopeless rage, huddled together with a few of its equally despairing breaded chicken brothers, mumbling about their lousy plight in the food tray and the fact that they'll never see the limelight. For this chicken, or what could be found of it, had a mucilage-like texture to its breading, reminiscent of a snail's underbelly, although the interior, the actual meat of the matter did a good job of portraying actual chicken breast but the offering was so measly in size it could've sat up and sang the Star Spangled Banner and I wouldn't have batted an eye. It was actually the sauce that was the big surprise. Advertising its sweet and spicy attributes on the package, this sauce had a considerable spicy kick and managed to herd the other feeble ingredients together into an integrated fighting force where illusion was the key, something General Tao, in his warfare days, might have utilized himself to conquer the enemy. I'll also say that the rice managed to wipe away any preconceived notions I had about microwaved starch grains as each grain of rice was as crisp and clear as a Vermeer painting, both in texture and taste. Michelina has some other new varieties in their signature Asian food lineup that I'm keen to try if only to see if I survive. Each one of them is sure to be an adventure, kind of like Marco Polo traveling to Asia by way of Minnesota. One thing I do know now is I think I can finally answer that age-old question about why the chicken crossed the road. Obviously to get away from the dynamic duo of General Tao and Mama Michelina.    

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