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Does General Tso Actually Exist?

food_generalTsoChicken_article.jpgMy search for General Tso, military legend, son of farmers, poultry icon, has brought me to Hunan. Following a hand-drawn map to his childhood home, on a dirt road flanked by rice paddies—in the shadow of a huge billboard depicting the General himself—I hope to solve the mystery of the origins of his eponymous chicken dish and how it came to conquer America. In this rural hamlet in South Central China, Tso is still celebrated as the hometown hero who quashed a mid-19th-century rebellion led by a Chinese convert who believed he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ. There are chickens everywhere. Brown chickens, white chickens, spotted chickens, chickens cross­ing the road. But there is absolutely no sign of the General’s chicken. “No one here eats this,” explains
one of his family members, five generations removed, when I ask about the famed General Tso’s chicken and show him a picture of the dish.

Then it hits me: In America, General Tso, like Colonel Sanders, is known for chicken, not war. In China, he is known for war and not chicken.

General Tso’s chicken is almost certainly Ameri­ca’s most beloved Chinese food chef’s special. What’s not to love? Succulent crispy fried chicken pieces drenched in a tangy, spicy sauce, sautéed with garlic, ginger, and chilis, each bite a gastro­nomic journey: a pleasant crunch giving sway to the tender dark meat, all while your tongue experiences the interplay of spice and sweetness.

I am obsessed with this dish, and so is America. I have crisscrossed the country, sampling it in all-you-can-eat $4.95 supper buffets, urban takeouts with bulletproof windows, and esteemed five-star restaurants. I’ve had sauce that is brown and runny, red and syrupy, yellow and honey-sweet. The chicken has come in short squat pieces, long thin pieces, dark meat, white meat, and reconstituted mystery meat. I even tried a version in South Dakota that resembled Chicken McNuggets, and couldn’t tell where the chicken ended and the dough began. There’s General Tso’s pizza, General Tso’s dumplings, and General Tso’s tofu (served in Antarctica!). At the Naval Academy, in Annapolis, they’ve even given it a nautical bent, serving “Admiral Tso’s Chicken.” In America, Tso’s campaign has been overwhelming.

But if they’ve never heard of this iconic dish in the General’s hometown, where did it come from? Unlike kung pao chicken, which nearly every self-respecting Chinese chef can make, the mention of General Tso’s chicken left those I encountered in a state of confusion. The refrain was constant. “We don’t have General Tso’s chicken here.” “We’ve never heard of it.” In fact, there is hardly any variation of batter-dipped deep-fried chicken bits to be found here: nary an orange chicken, lemon chicken, or the sweet-and-sour chicken Americans know and love.

I finally find a promising lead in Tang Keyuan, general manager of the Xinchangfu Restaurant in Changsha, the capital city of Hunan, about an hour from the General’s hometown. His eyes light up when I ask about the dish. It had been invented by a Chef Peng, he says. The name rings a bell. Peng had been one among a generation of finely trained chefs who had lifted Chinese cuisine in America from the doldrums of chop suey and egg foo yung back in the ’70s. After opening his restaurant, Peng’s Garden, near the United Nations in New York City, Peng quickly became a darling among the movers and shakers of international relations. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger counted the restaurant among his favorites and is credited with spreading the gospel of Hunanese cuisine in the States. Despite, or perhaps because of, his success, by the late ’80s Peng had closed shop and headed back to Taiwan.

Today Chef Peng spends his time playing mah-jongg in his apartment in central Taipei, while his son, Chuck, runs his chain of restaurants. Close to 90, the elder Peng is a tall, patrician man with white hair carefully combed in neat parallel lines, so hard of hearing that our conversation mostly consists of me yelling into his ear in Mandarin. Originally from Hunan himself, Peng began his career working as a chef for Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government. Driven out of Mainland China during Mao’s 1949 Communist takeover, Peng opened a restaurant in Taipei, where he created General Tso’s at a banquet, naming it for the hero of his native province.

In carefully enunciated Mandarin, I explain to Peng that the sweet-and-spicy concoction known as General Tso’s chicken is now perhaps the most popular Chinese chef’s special in all of America. “Sweet?” he asks, eyes growing wide. “The dish can’t be sweet! The taste of Hunan cuisine is not sweet!”

But as Peng scrolls through photos of General Tso’s chicken on my laptop, accumulated over months of travel, his curiosity is piqued. “This isn’t right,” he says, pointing at the bed of broc­­coli under the chicken. “General Tso’s chicken should be served as is. It doesn’t need broccoli!” He criticizes the next picture because the chilis are red instead of black, another for cubes of breast in place of dark meat, and he grimaces at the baby corn and carrots. “This is all nonsense,” he says.

Chef Peng’s Taipei restaurants continue to serve General Tso’s chicken, but it’s a distant cousin to the American brand: big chunks of chicken drenched in a rich brown sauce with chili peppers seductively tucked in between. The dominant taste is soy, followed by garlic and a kick from the chilis. The chicken is appropriately chewy, but there is skin on it—no crispy coating. There is also no sweetness. This is good, but this is not the General Tso’s chicken America fawns over.

So where did our recipe come from, if not from the chef who named the dish? The answer, I find, may lie closer to home, in New York City. Over lunch at Shun Lee Palace, a holdover from the glamorous 1970s Chinese cuisine era, owner Michael Tong recalls a friendly chicken-general rivalry between his partner, Chef Wang, and old Chef Peng, back when Hunanese cuisine was first heating up the New York dining scene.

Inspired by the General Tso’s chicken dish at Peng’s original restaurant in Taipei, Wang created
his own version, but with an American twist. “Once you are serving the American public, you change the texture,” Tong says. The key was to crispy-coat things, a concept Wang used on several dishes that would go on to be replicated at Chinese restaurants throughout the States.

With his recipe down, Chef Wang needed a name for his chicken dish, something to distinguish it from Chef Peng’s but still hark back to their shared Hunan heritage. “We all wanted to use the name of a renowned general from Hunan in the Qing dynasty,” says Tong. “One guy used General Tso, so Chef Wang used another general, Zeng Guofan.” But it’s Wang’s recipe—under the label of General Tso—that went on to conquer America.

It’s not entirely clear how General Tso’s name won out, but it’s easy to see why Gen­eral Zeng’s recipe did. Chef Wang’s version is the convergence of everything Americans want in a Chinese dish. First, it’s chicken, a meat that Amer­icans adore (Chinese favor pork and seafood); second, it’s deep-fried (Americans love that oil); third, it has a strong taste of tang mixed with sweetness (they love sugar too). It’s a perfect culinary storm: at once sweet and spicy, exotic and familiar.

In Taiwan, Chuck Peng tells me General Tso’s chicken has arrived in Europe, via some of his father’s disciples. I mention that it has also landed in Korea, the Phil­ippines, and the Dominican Republic, in all its various permutations. “I think General Tso’s chicken will spread around
the world from the United States,” he says thoughtfully, “not from Taiwan.”

“Isn’t that strange?” I ask.

He nods. “It’s very strange.”