Film Review: ‘The Search for General Tso’

The Search for General Tso (2014)
Written and directed by Ian Cheney

searchforgeneraltsoThere is a very small Chinese hole-in-the-wall in my neighborhood where, if you’re there at the right time, you can often see a small group of middle-aged Chinese laborers sitting down to dine. They don’t look at a menu, and as far as I can tell, they don’t even order. They greet whoever is serving, and in a few minutes their meal is brought out, usually in plain bowls. Whatever they’re eating doesn’t look like what I’m eating; it doesn’t resemble anything I’ve ever seen off a Chinese menu. But the men make it look more delicious than what I’m having, and they confirm for me what I suspected for a long time before I first saw them: that there is a real Chinese menu I never get to see, and as much as I love my lemon chicken and my beef choi sum, that menu is a lot better.

The Search for General Tso is a documentary that reminds me of my alternate menu theory, beginning with the premise that this wildly popular dish is just about everywhere in America, but nobody seems to know where it came from or who General Tso is.

Like most really good documentaries, The Search for General Tso is about more than its title suggests. Tracking the background of the general and his ubiquitous namesake gives us a quick, delicious lesson in the Chinese diaspora in the United States. The question about who the general was leads to a seemingly endless series of others. How did a dish named after him find its way to the United States? Why does Chinese cuisine in America not look like anything people in China actually eat? Why do there seem to be Chinese restaurants in every town in America, even those whose only residents of Chinese ancestry are those who run the restaurants?

Everyone’s got something to contribute to the discussion or confusion, including restauranteurs, journalists, scholars, patrons, a guy who has ten thousand Chinese restaurant menus from around the world, and a guy who has dined in six thousand Chinese restaurants as a hobby, to get a sense of the Chinese cultural experience in America. While they all have something interesting to say, the film gets its charm from the Chinese restaurant owners themselves, some of them second- and third- generation entrepreneurs, some of them offering their observations even while their parents, sitting right next to them, offer a slightly different take.

We hear from Chinese men and women on the east and west coasts, from a few in the middle of nowhere, and from a few in such culinarily rich and disparate areas of the country as New Orleans (where you might feast on General Tso’s Alligator) and Arizona. In the film’s most resonant moment, we even hear from one chef in Taiwan who says he “doesn’t feel good” about what the dish has become while his son says he is “honored” to be a part of spreading the general’s (and this dish’s) fame.

The film sticks mostly to the literal investigation of the omnipresence of General Tso’s Chicken, but it can’t resist taking a few stabs at using the dish as metaphor for American cultural inflexibility, explaining how the American palate has effectively dumbed-down a great cuisine in a way that wasn’t demanded of other introduced cuisines. In light of the restaurant owners’ testimonies, though, it feels less damning of American diners and more admiring of Chinese ingenuity as the means by which the immigrant population survived and thrived in the face of institutional persecution in the post-gold-rush United States.

I have one tiny quibble with the film’s repeated use of the word “nationwide” to describe the availability of this dish. I have spent a good portion of my life dining in Chinese restaurants, and until a few years ago, I’d never heard of General Tso’s Chicken. I did a quick Yelp search for that phrase to confirm that there are a tiny handful of restaurants in Hawaii that offer the dish, and most of those are national chains, not neighborhood mom-and-pop operations. Where that phrase turns up in Hawaii’s section of Yelp is mostly in the reviews mentioning that you will not find the dish at the restaurant being reviewed. Is the Chinese American experience in Hawaii different from the experience in rest of the country, or is there something else going on here? I would have appreciated a few ruminations on the inconsistency, but I fear I may be the only person who cares.

I offer an admiring shout-out to whoever did the titles and graphics in this well-made documentary. They’re cute and clever, and they serve as great transitions between themes, sometimes illustrating some concept being explained in voice-over. Other technical aspects are well done, though I found the score to be just north of bland.

At about one hour and ten minutes in duration, The Search for General Tso’s Chicken is just about the right length. It’s going to make you hungry for Chinese food, and audiences might not be able to ride out anything longer. Phone in your order before sitting down to this very enjoyable film so you can get right to work on that beef broccoli when it’s done.

7/10 (I liked it)

The Search for General Tso’s Chicken is available beginning today via Video on Demand and on iTunes. It opens in theaters today in Los Angeles and New York, with more cities beginning next week.

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About Mitchell K. Dwyer

@scrivener likes movies.
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