Food Mystery

‘The Search for General Tso’: The Origins of America’s Favorite Chinese Dish, General Tso’s Chicken

A new documentary premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival explores how and why General Tso’s chicken became a cultural touchstone.

Ian Cheney

It’s a taste both foreign, and familiar. Chicken is diced into square inches, marinated, and deep-fried in a wok, followed by a quick toss in brown sauce. The sauce is a mélange of flavors—tangy, salty, and sweet—lathered on a crisp shell encasing the warm, tender meat.

General Tso’s Chicken has become a staple of American dining; a dish that, were it not for pizza, could be crowned the most popular ethnic food item in the country. And it’s a total cash cow. The dish is carried in most of the 50,000 Chinese restaurants in the United States, produced very cheaply, and sold for about $10 a pop, resulting in billions of dollars in tasty revenue.

Ian Cheney’s documentary The Search for General Tso, premiering at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival, traces the origins of the beloved Chinese food dish, and examines who the hell General Tso is.

The film begins by examining consumers’ outlandish theories concerning the identity of “General Tso.” Was he a Chinese army general under Chairman Mao who had it prepared for him every day before he went into battle? Is he a bearded Mongolian warrior on horseback, decked out in lustrous jade and gold armor? Or was it just a name that sounds exotic and catchy?

It’s a dish that seems alien to almost all ethnic Chinese. The filmmakers travel to Shanghai, where locals are left confused by pictures of the dish. “I haven’t seen it directly on a menu in China,” claims Crystyl Mo, the food editor of Time Out Shanghai.

With the help of Liang Xiao Jin, a Qing Dynasty researcher—and fifth-generation grandson of General Tso—the gang journeys to Hunan province to investigate the real-life General Tso. They travel to his home, which has been preserved as a museum. A picture of him, an elderly man sporting a cap, Fu Manchu-style mustache, and sharp beard, hangs on the wall. There are throw pillows with chickens plastered on them.

According to various historians interviewed in the film, the real General Tso was a 19th-century general in the Qing Dynasty—located in Hunan province—who helped put down the Taiping Rebellion, a massive civil war that took place in southern China from 1850 to 1864. He was strategically sophisticated, ruthless, and always emerged victorious.

“General Tso played a critical role in keeping together what is now modern-day China,” says Jennifer 8. Lee, author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles and a producer on the film. “At that point, there was really a threat during the age of colonization and he always wanted to keep the westerners out of China. So, if you told General Tso that this dish was named after him, I think he’d raise his eyebrows.”

While General Tso had a love of chicken, the filmmakers discover that his favorite dishes were: secret river fish, double-cooked pork, local goose casserole, and original flavor beef hoof. And the chicken dish, in its current iteration, is a mixture of sweet and savory, which isn’t a common flavor combination in Hunanese cuisine.

“General Tso was a powerful general… but he did not invent this chicken,” says Liang.

The film then pulls back to explore the journey of the Chinese—and Chinese food—to the United States. It began in 1849, during the California Gold Rush. Scores of Chinese in Guangdong province began to immigrate to California through the Port of San Francisco. And Americans were initially amazed by Chinese food, but also repulsed by it.

“The mainstream audience saw Chinese food as scary,” says Bonnie Tsui, author of American Chinatown. “They had ideas in their head of Chinese people eating rats, and stuff like that.”

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In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act, signed into law by President Chester A. Arthur, prohibited the immigration of all Chinese laborers to the U.S. It also forced existing Chinese Americans out of the labor force, and into self-employment. So, they gravitated toward two professions: laundry and food. Before long, Chinese restaurant owners discovered that if they adapted simple Chinese dishes to American tastes, it could prove to be a profitable enterprise.

Enter chop suey. The dish, a mixture of meat (pork or beef) accompanied by exotic vegetables, was introduced to Chinese restaurants around 1900 to cater to the Americanized palate. At a cost of 15 cents, it was cheap, delicious, and became a national phenomenon—opening the door for more Chinese dishes.

To escape persecution on the West Coast, as well as avoid competition with other their own people, the Chinese began migrating east and south, and restaurants began popping up in different parts of the country. They were given unthreatening names like “China Inn, “Panda _____,” and “Nice _____.” One of these dining establishments was Leong’s Asian Diner, owned and operated by David Leong, who opened the first Chinese restaurant in Springfield, Mo. The local community was initially up in arms over the place, and racist protesters leveled it with dynamite.

Then, Chef Leong had an idea. He removed the bones from chicken, deep-fried it, and covered it in a brown gravy sauce. Cashew Chicken was born. The dish “took off like wildfire,” says Leong, despite there being virtually no Chinese people in the area.

According to Leong’s son, in the late ‘60s, the McDonald’s Corp. visited Leong’s Asian Diner to see how their famous cashew chicken dish was breaded and fried.

“They wanted my dad’s recipes but they didn’t want to pay for it, and my dad said, ‘Well, I’m not going to give it to you!’” he says. “And a year later, Chicken McNuggets come out! Is that a coincidence, or what?”

American attitudes toward Chinese food have always been tied to Chinese politics. In 1943, when the U.S. government did away with the Chinese Exclusion Act, Chinese restaurants became ubiquitous. Then, in the 1950s, Americans were less bullish on Chinese food because of the Cold War/anti-Communist mentality, and all the chop suey restaurants began clearing out. After President Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, their food became in vogue again.

Around that time, in 1972, Chinese-American restaurateur Michael Tong opened Shun Lee Palace on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The following year, Chef T.T. Wang of Shun Lee introduced General Tso’s Chicken to the menu: chunks of chicken, fried in batter, and slathered in sweet and spicy brown sauce. The dish was a massive hit, and Shun Lee Palace subsequently received a four-star review in The New York Times.

“We are the first ones to have General Tso’s Chicken in the U.S., because we are the ones who opened the first Hunanese restaurant here in 1972,” says Tong. “But I have to confess: Taiwan did have General Tso’s Chicken in the ‘60s.”

According to the documentary, in 1971, businessmen from Shun Lee visited Peng’s Hunan Yuan, the most famous Hunan restaurant in Taipei, Taiwan, and came back to the U.S. with several dishes “inspired” by those at Peng’s—including General Tso’s Chicken.

Chef Peng Chang-kuei, meanwhile, was a preternaturally gifted chef who rose to become chef to the Nationalist Government, who were at war with the communists during the Chinese Civil War. When Mao conquered the mainland in 1949, Chang-kuei fled to Taiwan with the Nationalist Government army and cooked for the officials there. One evening, Chiang Kai-shek asked Peng to prepare a dinner for him. Peng tried to make something unique, incorporating the sour and hot combo from his Hunan province, and decided to name the dish after General Tso, the famous Hunanese general who never lost a battle.

He named the dish: General Tso’s Chicken.

Over the years, the dish has acclimated to American taste buds, and become sweeter. Accents, like broccoli and scallions, have been added as well.

Eventually, the filmmakers visit Peng’s Agora Garden, a Chinese restaurant in Taipei owned by Chef Peng. The old man is shown a picture of modern-day General Tso’s Chicken.

“This doesn’t resemble General Tso’s Chicken,” he says, with a deep sigh. “It’s the name but it’s not the dish. The real General Tso’s Chicken, this old man created it,” he says, pointing to himself and smiling.