May It Please the Palate: General Tso's Cauliflower

Let’s get a few things out of the way.

There was indeed a General Tso. He was a 19th Century Qing Dynasty statesman and military leader from China’s Hunan Province. 

General Tso’s chicken has nothing to do with him. The dish is not generally known in his birthplace or among his living descendants. Instead, it was invented in New York City by a Hunan chef, either in 1972 by T.T. Wang, or in 1973 by Pen Chang-kuei. There is actually a 2014 documentary about this dispute: “The Search for General Tso.” 

The recipe was developed for non-Hunans, and “generally” (ha ha, I wrote that on purpose) includes breaded and fried chicken thigh meat flavored with soy sauce, sugar, dried red chili peppers, and garlic. It is sweet, hot, fatty, and often served with broccoli, which hardly masks its soaring caloric punch.

General Tso’s Cauliflower is a whole ‘nother topic. I will credit New York-based food writer Diana Kuan (“Appetite for China”) for this healthier (and vegan) take on its fried, gut-bustin’ cousin. 

The keys: oven-roasted cauliflower and smoked tofu replace the chicken and broccoli. Do not use pressed tofu which is wet and gloppy. Smoked tofu is readily available in your local specialty markets, easy to cube, and ready to heat’n’eat.
Serves 4 to 6 as part of a multi-course meal
1 head cauliflower (about 2 ½ lbs) 
¼ cup grapeseed oil (or another high-heat cooking oil), plus 1 tablespoon
3 tablespoons tomato paste (or substitute ketchup for a slightly sweeter sauce)
3 tablespoons soy sauce
3 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 ½ tablespoons hoisin sauce
2 to 3 tablespoons chili sauce
1 tablespoon sesame oil
2 tablespoons sugar
8 ounces baked or smoked tofu, cut into bite-sized pieces
8 dried whole red chilis, or substitute 1/4 teaspoon dried red chili flakes
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon minced ginger,
1 scallion, white and green parts separated and thinly sliced
1 teaspoon white sesame seeds, for garnish
1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. If you will serve this with rice, start that now.
2. Cut the cauliflower into florets. In a large bowl, toss the cauliflower with ¼ cup of the oil and spread the florets on a rimmed baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Sprinkle the salt on top. Roast for about 25 minutes, until golden on top.
3. Prepare the sauce: In a small bowl, stir together the tomato paste, soy sauce, rice vinegar, hoisin sauce, chili sauce, sesame oil, and sugar.

4. In a large skillet or wok, add the remaining 1 tablespoon of the oil. Add the dried chilis, garlic, ginger, and scallions and stir-fry until just fragrant, about 30 or 40 seconds. Pour in the sauce and stir until thickened, 30 to 60 seconds. Add the cauliflower and tofu and carefully toss to coat with the sauce. Transfer everything to a large serving dish. Sprinkle the sesame seeds and scallions greens on top and serve with rice on the side.

Once you assemble the ingredients, it’s super easy to make, and is pretty enough to Instagram. The whole thing took me two hours from the time I walked in the door to start dinner, to eating and final cleanup – including a trip to the local store for smoked tofu, and a photo for my Instagram account. 

I’m sure the real General Tso would approve.
Nick Roumel is a principal with Nacht & Roumel PC, a firm in Ann Arbor specializing in employment and civil right litigation. He has many years of varied restaurant and catering experience, has taught Greek cooking classes, and wrote a food/restaurant column for “Current” magazine in Ann Arbor. Follow him at Twitter @nickroumel or Instagram @nroumel, or see