General Tso’s Chicken is so ubiquitous in Chinese restaurants in the United States, one can be forgiven for thinking that it’s a traditional Chinese dish. In fact, like other famous chicken dishes, its origins are a matter of debate, and its place in culinary tradition is complicated.
Other than its deliciousness, the most certain thing about the dish is that it was named after Tso Tsung-tang / Zuo Zongtang (左宗棠), a Qing Dynasty statesman and military leader from Hunan, a region of China that is known for its spicy foods. In her 2008 TED talk about American Chinese food, Jennifer 8. Lee states that General Tso’s Chicken originated in New York in the 1970s. Chinese cuisine expert Fuchsia Dunlop, clarifies in an article for the New YorkTimes that it was popularized in the 1970s but first made (albeit differently) in the 1950s by a chef from Taiwan who believed he was making Hunanese food.
Director Ian Cheney joins the discussion with his feature-length documentary The Search for General Tso, which premieres with three screenings at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. With the “curator of Chinese food in America“, Ed Schoenfeld, Cheney chases the apocrypha from China to United States to further explore where this dish may have come from, how it became popular, and its role as a link between Chinese and American cultures.
For more information, visit the film’s website and watch the trailer:
Who seemed more bewildered: those who were shown pictures of General Tso’s Chicken or the woman who said some of her customers can eat it seven times a week?
The remaining screening for the documentary are on Monday, 4/21 and Thursday, 4/24. See its page at the Festival website for details. Check it out; then, get some takeout.
Image: Andrew Shiue