Pursuing General Tso and his chicken

Updated: 2015-01-15 12:29

By Amy He in New York(China Daily USA)

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Pursuing General Tso and his chicken

General Tso's famous chicken dish is the subject of a new documentary on Chinese-American cuisine called The Search for General Tso. Provided to China Daily

Ian Cheney was on his way to Iowa to make a film when he and his filming partner stopped in a small town in Ohio at a local Chinese restaurant. He ordered what he usually did: General Tso's chicken.

The chicken dish is a staple in Chinese restaurants, a sweet and spicy, deep-fried dish that often is paired with broccoli, and sometimes with red chili peppers or scallions sprinkled on top.

"There was something about this place, this outpost in the middle of America serving this very familiar red chicken dish that made us both wonder, 'Who was General Tso, and why in so many small towns across America are we eating his chicken?' " Cheney recalled.

The idea for making the documentary stayed with Cheney for years until he met Jennifer 8 Lee, a former New York Times reporter who wrote about Chinese-American food for her 2008 book, The Fortune Cookie Chronicle.

A chapter in Lee's book was devoted to the story behind General Tso's chicken, one of the most recognizable dishes in Chinese-American cuisine, and the subject of Cheney's newest documentary The Search for General Tso.

"We started talking, and I incidentally had been thinking about doing a documentary, but realized very quickly when I started the book that I didn't have the skill to do a documentary, so I shelved it until when we came together," Lee told China Daily.

Lee was brought on by Cheney as executive producer to help the film raise money and for her knowledge of Chinese America and Chinese food.

When Lee was first approached by literary agents to write a book, she said she had never gotten excited about a topic until one on Chinese food came along.

"I originally did an article for The New York Times that followed a Chinese family from New York City to Georgia when they opened a Chinese restaurant, and that was my first eye-opening experience to how alien American Chinese food was for Chinese people from China," she said. "That sort of made me realize, 'Oh, fortune cookies aren't Chinese! General Tso's chicken isn't Chinese!' That made me think twice about what it means to be Chinese in America," said Lee, now CEO of a tech company in San Francisco.

During a span of three years, Cheney and his filming partner Curt Ellis traveled across the US talking to Chinese restaurant owners. They also visited Shanghai, Hunan province and Taipei to get a local take from Chinese residents. There found Americans and Chinese who were confused about the dish, but not in the same ways, Cheney said.

People in the US knew what a popular dish General Tso's chicken was, but some did not know who the general was.

In China, people knew who General Tso (Zuo Zongtang) was - a Qing dynasty military leader - but were confused about the dish, because it doesn't exist on the Chinese mainland.

The general, incidentally, lived from 1812 to 1855 and was known for his role in suppressing the Taiping Rebellion. On those paper placemats you'll find in many Chinese restaurants, legend has it that General Tso's chef called in sick one day when he had a dinner party planned, so he whipped up his signature dish to rave reviews.

Cheney interviewed Peng Chuangkuei, a Taiwan-based chef from Hunan province who is generally credited with creating General Tso's chicken for a banquet in Taiwan. When the dish was brought to New York City in the mid-1970s, it was changed to appeal to the American palate, which included adding sugar and pairing it with broccoli. An entry on wikipedia.com says that Peng's restaurant on East 44th Street in Manhattan was the first to serve the dish in the US.

"We tasted the original General Tso's chicken in Taipei, and it was delicious; it was just different," Cheney said. "It was a little more tart, it had more of a ginger-and-garlic profile, much less breading than you'd find on General Tso's chicken in the States. I think Chef Peng was a little disappointed that Americans aren't being as adventurous as one might like in exploring different types of culinary traditions."

Lee said that the dish is like her in many ways, a reflection of Chinese-American identity.

"People look at it and they go, 'This is foreign, this is exotic,' but the more you learn about it, the more you realize this is a dish that is native to America. If you look at me, I look Chinese, genetically I'm Chinese, but if you drill down, I'm completely native to the United States," she said.

The documentary is simultaneously showing in cities across US and in video-on-demand format, streaming from major platforms like Apple's iTunes and Amazon Instant Video.

"We went into this curious about what we could learn about this one dish and the story behind it," Cheney said, "but we emerged from the film with a much greater understanding and appreciation of Chinese-American history more broadly, the unbelievable struggle that immigrants have faced, the repressive laws ."