As a curious person with Asian roots, I really like documentaries, especially when they handle about food. So when I found a documentary called The Search for General Tso by Ian Cheney on Netflix, I knew I had to watch this.

You probably all know General Tso’s chicken, but the funny thing is… I didn’t, since I live in Europe. When I grew up we would often go to a Chinese restaurant when eating out, and as a student I started cooking more Indonesian and Chinese dishes, but I’ve never encountered the General on the menu. But this documentary piqued my curiosity.

The search for general Tso is an entertaining detective story that takes the viewer over the globe and through 19th and 20th century history in order to answer these questions: But just who was General Tso? And how did his chicken become emblematic of an entire national cuisine?”

General Tso’s chicken is commonly regarded as a Hunan dish, but doesn’t really fit with the food preferences of the Hunanese, who usually like their food savory and fiery and certainly don’t mix spicy with sweet. When the makers traveled to China in search of general Tso and the origins of the dish, they got surprised reactions when they showed glossy pictures of the dish to people in the street. So if the dish is unknown in the supposed home region, where does it come from?

The dish was actually created by Peng Chang-Kuei, who was the Nationalists’ governmental banquet chef during the Chinese civil war in the middle of the 20th century and came from Hunan. After the Kuomingtang, the Nationalists, were defeated by the communists, he traveled with the remaining Kuomingtang to Taiwan. It is said that he created this dish by request of Chiang Kai-Shek, the Nationalists’ leader, and named it after a well-known Hunanese person, general Tso. General Tso was a formidable military leader who lived in 19th century Hunan and supposedly had never lost a battle. He was also a fierce proponent of traditional Chinese values and fought hard to keep western influences and people out of China.

The dish is also representative of the inventiveness and flexibility of Chinese immigrants who came to California during the Gold rush, but were forced out of labor by anti-immigration laws. Unable to get jobs, the Chinese turned to two enterprises they could set up, laundry and food. In order to minimize competition with fellow Chinese, Chinese trade unions sprang up and sent would-be Chinese restaurateurs to all nooks and crannies of American society. So now you also know why can can find Chinese restaurants even in the middle of nowhere. They would also train the immigrants and inform them about the American taste preferences and popular dishes. Chinese are masters of adaptation and General Tso’s was the perfect dish to adapt to the American palate with a healthy profit margin.

The dish is also surrounded by irony. The credit for the the creation of the dish goes often to T.T. Wang, who was chef in one of the Shun Lee Garden restaurants in New York. His was the first Hunan restaurant in the USA and he and his kitchen staff traveled to China and Taiwan in search for inspiration. They probably tasted Peng’s dish there and brought it back to the USA. Ironically, when Peng found out that his dish was being copied in the States and he went there to show them how it’s done, the claim to General Tso’s chicken was already in the hands of chef Wang and Shun Lee palace. His restaurant in New York never gained any traction and he moved back to Taiwan after a couple of years. In another ironic turn, the dish that was named after a fierce nationalist and protector of traditional Chinese values, was adapted beyond recognition and became the poster dish for all that was wrong with Chinese food in America.

At its worst, General Tso’s chicken is a plateful of greasy fried chicken drowning in sweet and gloppy sauce, but the foodmaven has done my homework and found two delicious looking recipes, one by my favorite Chinese chef Ken Hom. Ian Cheney and his crew have published their own adaptation on their website. So, if you’ll excuse me, I have to pick up some groceries and start cooking!

Image General Tso's chickenImage credit: The search for General Tso

(Cross-posted on Blogher.com)