Chinese-American cuisine in the United States revolves around one dish: General Tso's Chicken. But where did the dish originate, and who is General Tso?
That is the pressing question in the documentary "The Search for General Tso," which is having its world premier at the Tribeca Film Festival on Sunday, April 20. The filmmaker Ian Cheney, with producers Jennifer 8. Lee and Amanda Murray, uncover the history of the dish. In doing so, they reveal the remarkable journeys taken by Chinese immigrants in America.
Cheney was inspired to make the film after pulling off a highway "somewhere in Ohio" a decade ago, and the only place that was open was a Chinese restaurant. He and a friend ordered "the usual: General Tso's Chicken."
"Something about the loneliness of this neon-signed outpost in the middle of Ohio, together with the deliciousness of the chicken, made us suddenly wonder: who the heck was General Tso, and why - in nearly every small town and big city in America - are we all eating his chicken?", Cheney wrote in an email en route to the festival.
Here are seven things you might not know about General Tso and his chicken dish, plucked from the documentary.
General Tso is real, but the dish was not his favorite
General Tso is beloved in the Hunan Province in China, where he is from. But the dish, largely Americanized for our sweeter palates, is not something he would have enjoyed. Hunan cuisine is known for it's hot peppers, and most of the food synonymous with the region is very spicy. In the film, it's noted that it is somewhat ironic that General Tso, who was very interested in preserving authentic Chinese culture and tradition, would end up being the namesake of a Chinese dish that has morphed into something widely American. In the film, a descendent of Tso admits feeling saddened that Americans do not know who General Tso really was. (Credit: The Search for General Tso)
In China, they do not eat General Tso's Chicken
The filmmakers show Chinese people in Shanghai and Hunan Province pictures of the dish, and no one recognizes it. This may be surprising, but as the film shows, Chinese immigrants in America, in an attempt to make a living for themselves, opened restaurants that were just exotic enough that Americans would eat at them. In an attempt to both assimilate and survive, Chinese restaurants did not serve the authentic foods they knew and enjoyed; instead, they created a hybrid better suited for American tastes. "We changed out menus to the demands and tastes of people around us," said one Chinese restaurant owner interviewed by the filmmakers. The first wave of Chinese restaurants made Chop Suey popular and nearly mainstream as Chinese people moved from the West Coast across the country opening restaurants. This set the stage for General Tso's Chicken. (Credit: FLICKR/ Meal Makeover Moms)
There is no exact recipe for the sauce
Each Chinese restaurant has its own way of preparing the sauce that flavors General Tso's chicken. The boneless fried chicken and broccoli are staples, but the sauce varies a little bit from place to place. Some are made with more vinegar, some with more sugar. Other restaurants use honey as a sweetener. It's a simple matter of "people playing copycat." (Credit: FLICKR/ Matthew Stinson)
The chicken is almost always dark meat
The pieces of chicken — almost all from the thigh — are boneless and fried. (Credit: The Search for General Tso)
General Tso's Chicken was first made in NYC in 1972
Chef T.T. Wang was the chef at Shun Lee Palace (155 E 55th St., still open today) when he invented the dish, according to Michael Tong, who opened that restaurant and Hunan Restaurant in 1971 and 1972. But... (Credit: FLICKR/ Su Lin)
But a chef in Taipei was actually the first to make General Tso's
Chef Peng Chang-kuei was a trained chef in the Hunan Province, but cooked in Taipei. He created the dish in honor of General Tso in the 1960s and, according to "The Search for General Tso," was visited by Chinese chefs from America looking for culinary inspiration. Chef Peng knew he was being ripped off and came to New York City, where he opened Peng's Restaurant. In a cruel twist, people thought Peng was ripping off Chef Wang and his restaurant closed. (Credit: FLICKR/ Navin Rajagopalan)
What we know as General Tso's Chicken isn't the real deal
Chef Peng now runs Peng's Agora Garden in Taipei. While his exact recipe is never disclosed in the film, he said he does not add broccoli or scallions, and his dish is certainly not at all sweet. He had this to say about what American's know as General Tso's Chicken: "It's the name but it's not the dish." (Credit: FLICKR/ My_amii)