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The Origins of America’s Favorite Chinese Dish, General Tso’s Chicken
October 2, 2016 – 02:44 pm
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A new documentary premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival explores how and why General Tso’s chicken became a cultural touchstone.

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.

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