By Elaine Dunn
Quick, which general from Hunan Province, China, is better known than Mao Zedong in the U.S. and not because of his role on the battlefield? Answer: General Tso.
Walk into any of the approximately 50,000 U.S.-based Chinese restaurants or Asian buffets and you’ll come across a dish called General Tso’s chicken (左公雞). This sweet, slightly spicy, deep-fried chicken nugget dish is one of the most ubiquitous – and popular – dishes in America. So was this chicken dish really a favourite of General Tso?
Who is General Tso?
First of all, who is General Tso? General Tso is a real general from the Qing Dynasty. He was born Zuo Zongtang (左宗棠), in pinyin, in 1812 in a small village 50 miles north of Changsha (長沙), the provincial capital of Hunan Province.
In China, he is known for his ruthlessness during the Taiping Rebellion, China’s deadliest civil war, and certainly not for the chicken dish associated with his name!
He was the son of poor peasant farmers. After failing the official court exams seven times, he abandoned his ambitions of becoming a civil servant, instead returning home to farm silkworms and study on his own. When the Taiping Rebellion started in 1850, the governor of Hunan Province brought him in as an advisor. In 1860, he had his own garrison of 5,000 volunteers, which he successfully led in driving the Taiping rebels out of Hunan. In 1864, he and his mentor governor Zeng Guolan ended the rebellion and he was made a viceroy and governor-general of Fujian Province.
His military success continued. He called for a war against the Russian forces in Xinjian in 1878, ending Russian occupation of the border city of Yining (伊寧). With the outbreak of the Sino-French War in 1884, Zuo took on his fourth and last commission, overseeing coastal defense of Fujian. He died of natural causes in 1885 after a truce was signed between the Chinese and the French.
How General Tso’s chicken came to be
Former New York Times reporter Jennifer 8 Lee went on a pilgrimage to trace the origin(s) of this popular American chicken dish. In a November 2013 TED Talk, she debunked many myths about the dish, including:
No one in China, except for maybe the graduates who have studied in the U.S., has heard of General Tso’s chicken, not even the general’s relatives!
The general is known for his military distinction in China, NOT for a chicken dish.
The general, though, did raise chickens; but he actually preferred pigs.
According to Lee in her “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles,” Chinese food in the U.S. was largely shaped in the 1970s by three Chinese chefs and President Richard Nixon. Apparently after Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972, Americans demanded Chinese food beyond the realm of chop suey, egg fooyoung and chow mein.
The three Chinese classically trained chefs had fled to Taiwan when the Communists took over the mainland. They eventually settled in New York City and opened their own restaurants in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Chef Peng Changkuei (彭長貴) used to be the Nationalist (KMT) government’s banquet chef and fled to Taiwan with Generalissimo Chiang Kaishek. His original General Tso’s chicken, created in the late 1950s in Taiwan was prepared without sugar as Hunanese cuisine is usually spicy and not sweet. The Taiwan Peng Yuan’s version consisted of big chunks of chicken drenched in a rich, caramelized sauce, with chili peppers and a sprig of broccoli for decoration. However, the dominant flavor was soy sauce and garlic, not sweetness. In 1973, Peng arrived in New York City to open Peng Yuan on the East Side. Unfortunately, his chicken dish had already been adapted by other chefs who beat him to opening restaurants showcasing Hunan cuisine.
Two other Hunanese chefs in New York adapted Peng’s chicken recipe in the early ‘70s. T. T. Wang and Michael Tong of Shun Lee Palaces and Hunan Restaurant (they claim the latter was the first Hunan restaurant in the U.S.) had visited many Hunan restaurants in Hong Kong and Taiwan before opening their restaurants in New York. Chef Wang crisped Peng’s chicken up and covered it with a sweet and spicy sauce, and named it after another Hunan general, Zeng Guolan, which became General Ching in its anglicized transliteration.
Another chef, David Keh, also visited Peng’s restaurant in Taiwan in search of inspiration for his own NY restaurant. He, too, chose to adapt Peng’s chicken, cutting the pieces differently, and serving it with water chestnuts, black mushrooms, hoisin sauce and vinegar.
In 1974, a local ABC station featured Peng’s restaurant and Chef Peng preparing General Tso’s chicken. After that segment aired, 1,500 people requested the recipe and there was no turning back.
In truth, today’s General Tso’s chicken - the sweet, spicy, crispy version - is actually Wang’s General Ching’s chicken. It appears the name and the recipe have merged since the 1970s.
Lee visited Chef Peng, now in his late 80s and living in Taipei, showed him photos of “his” invention, which he barely recognized. His dish does not include broccoli or scallions, and most certainly is not at all sweet. “He criticized the next picture because the chilies were red instead of black. But that was a minor crime compared to the travesties in some of the other versions he saw … He shook his head when he saw the baby corn and carrots in a version from Dover, N.H.
“As he left, he told me that this was all moming-qimiao (莫名-奇妙). Nonsense.”