General Tso’s Chicken – No Search Necessary

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An American filmmaker went on a quest for the origins of General Tso’s Chicken, but for many in Taiwan there was never a mystery.

Forget about chow mein, spring rolls, and sweet-and-sour pork. When Americans think about Chinese food these days, say experts in Chinese-American cuisine, the dish they think of first is General Tso’s Chicken (左宗棠雞). Across the United States, every Chinese restaurant worth its soy sauce seems to have the dish on its menu, whether for in-store dining or the ever-popular “Chinese take-out,” and customers clamor for it.

How did this phenomenon happen? After all, General Tso’s Chicken was unheard of until about four decades ago. And who was this General Tso anyway?

Those nagging questions spurred filmmaker Ian Cheney to shoot a 73-minute documentary entitled The Search for General Tso that was released about a year ago, and although its run in movie theatres is long over, the film can readily be found through Netflix, Amazon, and other channels. The “search” took Cheney and his camera crew to big cities and small towns on two continents, but in the end the answers he arrives at would come as no surprise to the cognoscenti in Taiwan.

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General Tso, of course, refers to Tso Tsung-tang (spelled Zuo Zong-tang in Hanyu Pinyin), a Hunanese military hero and government official who was instrumental in saving the Qing Dynasty by helping to put down the fierce Taiping Rebellion in the mid-19th century. The chicken dish named in his honor, far from being traditional Hunanese fare, was invented in Taipei in 1954 by another native of Hunan, the famous master chef Peng Chang-kuei, who is still around at the ripe old age of 96.

No wonder that Cheney finds total befuddlement on people’s faces in China, including Tso’s native Hunan, when he shows them photos of General Tso’s Chicken and asks them about the dish. In Hunan’s capital of Changsha, the documentary makers could find a public square, museum, elementary school, hotel, and brand of liquor named after Tso Tsung-tang, but no eponymous chicken dish. They even located a fifth-generation descendant of the general, who expressed pride that his ancestor had become so well-known abroad, while admitting to being somewhat put off that the fame was due to a menu item and not to Tso’s considerable achievements as a military strategist and administrator.

In Hunan’s capital of Changsha, the documentary makers could find a public square, museum, elementary school, hotel, and brand of liquor named after Tso Tsung-tang, but no eponymous chicken dish.

How did Taipei become home to what is regarded (outside of China at any rate) to be an iconic Hunanese dish? Over the years, I have several times heard Chef Peng tell the story. I first met Peng in 1973, introduced by my journalistic colleague, photographer Lawrence K. Chang, who seemed to know everyone in Taipei worth knowing and every restaurant worth eating at. We interviewed Peng for what became the bulk of a chapter in a book called The New York Times Correspondents’ Choice: Restaurants and Recipes from Around the World, published by Quadrangle in 1974.

At that time, Peng had his own restaurant, the Mandarin, inside what was then the Asia Hotel on NanJing East Road, Section 1. But back in the 1950s, he was the chef at a government guesthouse and was regularly called upon by high-level government officials, including Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, to provide the banquet food for special occasions. The most special of those occasions came in December 1954, when Admiral Arthur W. Radford, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, led a delegation to Taiwan to confer with President Chiang and other top-ranking government and military leaders about the deepening “Taiwan Straits Crisis,” China’s challenge to Taiwanese control of the offshore islands of Quemoy (Jinmen) and Matsu.

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Chef extraordinaire Peng Chang-kui, center, is the inventor of many popular “Hunan” dishes, including General Tso’s Chicken.

Peng, asked to oversee the meals to accompany the three full days of meetings to be held at the Zhongshan Building atop Yangmingshan, was given distinct instructions not to serve the same dish more than once. Exercising his innovativeness, Peng came up with several new creations that later became mainstays of his repertoire – and one of them was a concoction of bite-sized pieces of chicken, first fried and then sautéed with red peppers, garlic, and ginger. In giving a name to the new dish, Peng chose to honor one of the eminent personages of his native province, Tso Tsung-tang.

Peng came up with several new creations that later became mainstays of his repertoire – and one of them was a concoction of bite-sized pieces of chicken, first fried and then sautéed with red peppers, garlic, and ginger.

Another innovation from the Radford banquets that has remained a favorite of Peng’s customers over the years is the use of half of a local honeydew melon as the bowl for serving a soup of minced squab (or more commonly these days, a mixture of chicken and pork). But the visit of the American admiral was hardly the only time that Peng showed off his culinary creativity. Other dishes of his invention that have become standards include his signature tofu cooked with black beans and scallions, as well as his honeyed ham and his minced shrimp served in a lettuce leaf.

Besides developing new dishes, Peng had also long modified traditional Hunanese offerings, considering the original flavor as too stark to appeal to diners from other areas. Young assistant chefs who learned these recipes from Peng later introduced them to “Hunan” restaurants around the world. For several years in the 1990s, Peng sought to extend the introduction to Hunan, but the dishes offered at his restaurant in Changsha were considered by locals to be “Taiwanese.”

American Version of General Tso's Chicken
American Version of General Tso’s Chicken

A section on Peng’s restaurants in an article entitled “Dining Spots That Have Met the Test of Time” in the January 2007 Wine and Dine edition of Taiwan Business TOPICS included some biographical background on Chef Peng. His restaurant experience began at the age of 13 when he was apprenticed to Tsao Chin-sheng, the most famous chef in Hunan. Peng’s culinary skills were so evident that Tsao elevated him to the position of head chef when he was still in his early twenties.

During the turbulent war years, Peng – like much of the Chinese population – was often on the move, which exposed him to the cuisine and food-preparation techniques of other provinces, knowledge that he later incorporated into his own cooking style. With the end of World War II, Peng was hired to be the personal chef of General Li Tsung-jen. Li became Vice President of the Republic of China in 1948 and Acting President for part of 1949 when Chiang Kai-shek temporarily stepped aside, but when the mainland fell Li opted to go to the United States rather than Taiwan.

For Peng, his old connections in Changsha stood him in good stead in Taipei. His former mentor, Tsao Chin-sheng, had once been the personal chef to Tan Yen-kai, one of the leading figures in the Kuomingtang for decades. Tan’s son-in-law was General Chen Cheng, who implemented land reform as Governor of Taiwan and later became Premier and Vice President, and it was through Chen that Peng first got the opportunity to cook for state banquets.

The New York challenge

With the development of the Taiwan economy and growth of a middle class, more and more people could afford to eat out, and Peng was among the leading chefs who opened restaurants to meet that demand. His Mandarin Restaurant was highly popular, but after a while Peng got news that Hunan food, including the chicken dish named in honor of Tso Tsung-tang, was becoming all the rage in New York.

Two different restaurants in New York were the first to feature the dish, recalls Ed Schoenfeld, one of the leading authorities on Chinese food in America, by email. “Hunam at 45th St. and 2nd Ave. was owned by Chef T.T. Wang, a Yangchow-trained masterchef who had come to the U.S. as the chef to the U.S. Taiwanese Ambassador. Chef Wang started The Shun Lee Restaurants in NYC in the early 60’s,” writes Schoenfeld. “Simultaneously Chef Tai Wen Dah, at Uncle Tai’s Hunan Yuan on Third Avenue, started serving the same dish. Both chefs had visited Chef Peng’s restaurant in Taipei and were consciously trying to emulate his appeal and menu.”

New York diners quickly took to General Tso’s Chicken. “Americans like crispy foods and especially crispy fried chicken, which is as ubiquitous as any all-American food I can think of,” writes Shoenfeld. The dish also met their desire for “deeply tasty food.”

New York diners quickly took to General Tso’s Chicken. “Americans like crispy foods and especially crispy fried chicken, which is as ubiquitous as any all-American food I can think of,”

Peng decided to meet the competition in the Big Apple head on, opening his own establishment on East 44th St., not far from Grand Central Station. It received a rave review from New York Times food critic Mimi Sheraton, and Henry Kissinger was a regular customer. But much of the dining public mistook Peng, the latecomer to the market, as the copycat rather than the initiator of the new Hunanese cuisine.

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When Chef Peng had a rstaurant in New York in the 1970’s, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was one of his loyal customers.

One reason for the confusion may have been that while the Chinese name for the chicken dish was always左宗棠雞 (Tso Tsung-tang Chicken), Peng had not originally rendered that in English as General Tso’s Chicken. In Taiwan, it had appeared in English on Peng’s menus variously as Chicken a la Viceroy and Duke Tso’s Chicken. But the New York rivals gave Tso a military title instead, which may have been more meaningful to Americans than an allusion to aristrocracy.

In addition, the English name was not the only change. Cooks in the United States began adapting the recipe to what they regarded as American tastes. “Uncle Tai added fresh water chestnuts and hoisin sauce to the dish in an attempt to put his own spin on things,” writes Schoenfeld. “Chef Wang stayed truer to Chef Peng’s original version, but made one major change that was to stick and become imbedded in our USA culinary DNA: he changed the tart part of the sauce to a balance of sweet and tart. The dish’s sauce was still soy and garlic-based and seasoned with scorched dried red chilies, but it now had this new sweetness to it that Americans loved. It became a hit with a bullet and spread around the land,” with many versions also incorporating some sprigs of broccoli.

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Peng Chang-kuei was the guest of honor when his former student Huang Ching-biao recently opened a deluxe Hunan restaurant in the Breeze Xinyi Center.

“The rest is history,” continues Schoenfeld. “Chef Wang’s version is the one that became universally popular and the standard for everyone else to emulate. Most Americans didn’t appreciate or even know who Chef Peng was /is. And General Tso’s Chicken’s sales are in the billions of dollars !!!”

On screen in The Search for General Tso, Peng shakes his head on being shown photos of the American-style dish and mutters: “This is all crazy nonsense.”

The Americanization of General Tso reminds me of a trip to the United States I made in the 1970s with my Taiwanese bride, who then was not at all partial to Western food. We had a number of atrocious Chinese meals in various cities, but were pleasantly surprised by the excellence of a small restaurant in Brooklyn run by a married couple from Taiwan. He was the chef and she was the hostess. When we complimented the wife on the qualiy and authenticity of the food, she replied: “That’s because I told my husband in the kitchen that this is for people from Taiwan, so leave out all the sugar and cornstarch we put in for the Americans.”

On screen in The Search for General Tso, Peng shakes his head on being shown photos of the American-style dish and mutters: “This is all crazy nonsense.”

If Peng did not make it in New York, his enterprise continues to prosper in Taiwan, where the Peng’s Corporation operates restaurants in 11 locations, including the second floor of 380 LinSen North Road in Taipei (Tel: 2551-9157). Seven of the establishments, under the name Peng’s Agora Garden, not only serve casual diners but have massive banquet halls for weddings and other large events.

At the same time, General Tso and his chicken are flourishing in the United States. As one sign of the penetration into American culture, “Tso” often fills a three-letter space in crossword puzzles, the answer to clues such as “General on a menu.” And the old warrior has even received the ultimate tribute: adoption as the name of a rock band. According to Wikipedia, General Tso is an underground American ambient metal band “most well known for being an early proponent of truetone ringtones.”

The Real General Tso

Tso Tsung-tang (1812-1885) was born to a poor family in Hunan’s Xiangyin County, north of Changsha. He aspired to become a mandarin but after failing the imperial examination seven times, settled for a life of raising silkworms. That provided plenty of time for reading, enabling him to educate himself in “Western knowledge,” particularly the sciences and political economy.

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Tso Tsung-tang (1812-1885), born in Hunan’s Xiangyin Country, north of Changsha.

With the outbreak of the Taiping Rebellion in 1850, that quiet life ended when Tso was hired as an advisor by Hunan governor Zeng Guofan and later made a provincial government official. In 1860, an army of volunteers under his command succeeded in pushing the Taiping forces from central China to the coastal provinces, eventually resulting in total defeat for the rebels. Afterwards, while serving as Commissioner of Naval Industries, he founded China’s naval academy and first modern shipyard, both in Fuzhou. In the following decades, he led a number of military campaigns to put down other uprisings and in the 1880s was appointed to oversee the defense of Fujian during the Sino-French War.

In the course of his career, Tso held numerous important government positions, including Undersecretary of War; Viceroy and Governor-General in turn of Zhejiang and Fujian (which then included Taiwan), Shaanxi and Gansu, and Liang- jiang; and member of the emperor’s Grand Council. In view of his contributions to the nation, Tso was elevated to the nobility, holding a title equivalent to marquis.

There is no historical evidence that Tso was particularly fond of chicken, although it can safely be assumed, Hunan being a landlocked province, that seafood wasn’t a central part of his diet growing up.

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