Documentary: The Search for General Tso

I’m “friends” with Jennifer 8. Lee (of “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles” fame and her awesome interview on The Colbert Report) on Facebook, and I think I recently saw her post about this documentary film ‘The Search for General Tso’: The Origins of America’s Favorite Chinese Dish, General Tso’s Chicken

THE SEARCH FOR GENERAL TSO is a feature-length documentary tracing the origins of Chinese American food through what is arguably America’s most popular takeout meal––General Tso’s Chicken. Anchoring the film is an upbeat quest, through small towns and big cities across America and beyond, to understand the origins and popularity of Chinese American food and its top-selling dish. Who was General Tso? And why do nearly fifty thousand restaurants serve deep-fried chicken bearing his name? Using this Americanized dish and its mysterious mastermind as a lens onto a larger story of immigration, adaptation, and innovation, the film follows a lighthearted journey, grounded in cultural and culinary history, through restaurants, Chinatowns, and the American imagination. Visits to present-day Chinese restaurants spark forays into the past, guided by chefs, scholars, and the occasional opinionated customer. The film’s lively soundtrack and shadow-puppet animations contribute both whimsy and momentum, as viewers find they’re on a search to answer a deeper question: how did America’s Chinese food become so… American?”

I wasn’t too surprised to find out that Lee was a producer for the documentary, but more surprised that she wasn’t the director. The documentary is currently premiering at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival.

Back in 2008, Lee gave a TED talk on The Hunt for General Tso as well as some background for her book:

General Tso is a historically real person, but he did not invent the dish. According to the documentary, the dish was invented by:

“Around that time, in 1972, Chinese-American restaurateur Michael Tong opened Shun Lee Palace on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The following year, Chef T.T. Wang of Shun Lee introduced General Tso’s Chicken to the menu: chunks of chicken, fried in batter, and slathered in sweet and spicy brown sauce. The dish was a massive hit, and Shun Lee Palace subsequently received a four-star review in The New York Times “We are the first ones to have General Tso’s Chicken in the U.S., because we are the ones who opened the first Hunanese restaurant here in 1972,” says Tong. “But I have to confess: Taiwan did have General Tso’s Chicken in the ‘60s.”According to the documentary, in 1971, businessmen from Shun Lee visited Peng’s Hunan Yuan, the most famous Hunan restaurant in Taipei, Taiwan, and came back to the U.S. with several dishes “inspired” by those at Peng’s—including General Tso’s Chicken. Chef Peng Chang-kuei, meanwhile, was a preternaturally gifted chef who rose to become chef to the Nationalist Government, who were at war with the communists during the Chinese Civil War. When Mao conquered the mainland in 1949, Chang-kuei fled to Taiwan with the Nationalist Government army and cooked for the officials there. One evening, Chiang Kai-shek asked Peng to prepare a dinner for him. Peng tried to make something unique, incorporating the sour and hot combo from his Hunan province, and decided to name the dish after General Tso, the famous Hunanese general who never lost a battle. He named the dish: General Tso’s Chicken.”

To be honest, I am not a big fan of General Tso’s chicken, but I have always been fascinated by the concept of a Chinese general being a cook and inventing such a famous dish. Too bad the fairy tale is not true, but that it is a great marketing story! However, Colonel Sanders did create Kentucky Friend Chicken (KFC).





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About John

I'm a Taiwanese-American and was born & raised in Western Massachusetts, went to college in upstate New York, worked in Connecticut, went to grad school in North Carolina and then moved out to the Bay Area in 1999 and have been living here ever since - love the weather and almost everything about the area (except the high cost of housing...)
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