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Who is General Tso? Hunting down a Chinese General’s American origins

Tong Xian Mei, of Ollie's Restaurant, samples from a plate of General Tso's Chicken . (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

WASHINGTON — When you think of classic American comfort food, what comes to mind? Is it meatloaf? Macaroni and cheese? How about General Tso’s chicken?

It’s a common item on Chinese takeout menus, but the dish is about as American as it gets.

“It’s a great dish because it is sweet, it is fried and it is chicken — which are all things Americans love. But it is not a dish that is actually served in China,” says Jennifer 8. Lee, producer of the documentary “The Search for General Tso.”

“And the versions of General Tso’s chicken that are now in China, are actually imported from America.”

“The Search for General Tso” unravels a culinary mystery: It traces the history of Chinese food in America and answers the age-old question: Who the heck is General Tso?

Around the turn of the century, Chinese immigrants were forced out of traditional jobs in the mines and on the railroads. Work was scarce, and Westerners viewed the Chinese as competition. So immigrants were forced to take jobs in “less threatening” lines of work, such as cooking and laundering, Lee says. Many opened restaurants.

But Chinese food didn’t go over well at first. Americans found it strange and unsettling. That is until chop suey surfaced. For the dish, Chinese cooks combined odds and ends of more familiar ingredients they thought Americans would like, and it was a success.

“They had to find something that Americans wanted to eat in order to survive,” Lee says.

Over the years, other dishes that emerged from Chinese restaurants rose to popularity, such as beef and broccoli and sesame chicken. But nothing captured the taste buds and the hearts of Americans quite like General Tso’s chicken.

“There have been a lot of other versions of sweet, fried and chicken — all things that American love — but this is the one that won,” Lee says about General Tso’s. And she suspects that a lot of it has to do with the name.

“I think it is actually because it is associated with a character. They know General Tso. They might not know who he is or what he’s done, but they know that there is a man named that. And they know that he’s affiliated with chicken in China.”

In the documentary, Lee and her team travel to Hunan province, the home of General Tso, to learn more about the man who is so well known in America — at least on the plate.

“General Tso was an extremely patriotic and forceful military figure who was about standing up to the West,” Lee says.

Ironically enough, Tso is now a popular figure in the West, and is a true symbol of Chinese-American assimilation.

“I think he would be somewhat horrified … [Tso] is probably the single most spoken Chinese name in America.”

Lee also tracked down the chef credited with inventing General Tso’s chicken — although his version is drastically different from what most Americans eat out of Styrofoam to-go containers. That’s because the dish has evolved over the years. It even varies from region to region and from restaurant to restaurant.

“A lot of restaurants adapt their version of General Tso’s chicken to what the local population wants,” Lee says. “There are definitely points in the country where you look very carefully and it either resembles chicken nuggets with some kind of sauce — so it’s very breaded and not very spicy — then there’s the whole, ‘Are there red peppers in it or not? Is it served on broccoli?’”

General Tso has become a high-grossing brand. Lee estimates the dish brings in billions of dollars each year, if not more. And she sees nothing but green in Tso’s future.

“He’s become a symbol, I think to a lot of Americans, of what China is,” Lee says. “And it’s sort of an open-source dish in that people can take it and adapt it as they see fit.”

“The Search for General Tso” is available for streaming on Netflix.

Get the recipe for the original General Tso’s chicken, from Chef C.K. Peng, on the film’s website. 

Watch the trailer for the documentary below:

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