“So, what is this General Tso’s Chicken?”
“It’s hard to explain… It’s a sweet, Americanized dish made out of chicken. Americans love it.”
Above was the conversation I had with the owner of the first Chinese restaurant I stepped into in the United States. After arriving to a small town in central Pennsylvania for college, I decided to visit one of the few Chinese restaurants in town hoping to get some food that would ease my feelings of being homesick. Unfortunately, not only did I get little comfort from the authenticity of the food, I became even more jumbled by what appeared on the menu. Why on earth does General Tso, this national hero I learned about in high school history books, have anything to do with chicken?
Perhaps, even General Tso himself would not have expected that one day his name would become famous all the way across the Pacific Ocean—but not for his battle achievements, rather for a chicken dish.
Best known as a nineteenth-century general, politician, and national hero to Chinese people, General Tso’s full name is Zuo Zongtang (Tso Tsung-t’ang was the transliteration of his name before the standard Chinese phonetic system came out). He was born in 1812 in Hunan province, a region in southwest China that is famous for its spicy food and its people’s firey military tradition. As a formidable general, Tso led many successful battles to defeat rebel groups on the northwest border. His most famous achievement was recapturing the Xinjiang region from the Uyghur rebellions. After serving the Qing Dynasty for his entire military career, General Tso died in 1885, leaving his legendry stories to be shared and passed down from generation to generation.
So, how did General Tso end up entitling a chicken dish? The roots can be traced back to a famous chef named Peng Chang-kuei, who came from the same region as General Tso. Born in 1919, Peng grew up in a deprived family during the most troubled times in contemporary China. As a teen, Peng served as apprentice to Cao Jingchen, who was a private chef for the Nationalist officials and the owner of a famous restaurant. After years of apprenticeship, Peng became a famous chef himself and his cooking was so exceptional that he became the executive chef for the Nationalist government banquets.
In 1949, the Chinese civil war broke out, during which the Communist army defeated the Nationalist government. When the Nationalist party fled to Taiwan, many service people were brought with them, and among them was Peng. In Taiwan, Peng continued serving the Nationalist government as a chef and soon opened his own restaurant “Peng’s Huanan Yuan”—the most famous Hunan-style restaurant at the time. In his restaurant, Peng created many dishes that were inspired by his much-missed hometown and reflected Human cuisine. One of them includes General Tso’s chicken—a heavily sour, salty, and spicy chicken named after one of Hunanese favorite historical figures General Tso.
The “General” did not arrive in the U. S. until the early 1970s when America’s first Hunanese restaurant, “Hunan,” opened in Manhattan, New York. Inspired by Peng’s General Tso’s chicken in Taiwan, chef T. T. Wang, of the Hunan restaurant, also devised a dish called General Tso’s chicken with more American flavor and introduced this dish on the menu. With the huge success of Hunan restaurant, General Tso’s chicken—this fried, buttery and sweet chicken dish that fits American people’s tastes all around—soon got its own reputation. Shortly afterwards, it was copied by other Chinese restaurants all over the country, making General Tso’s chicken one of America’s favorite Chinese dishes.
Today, you can find General Tso’s chicken almost anywhere in this country. In fact, because of this dish, General Tso has become one of the most famous Chinese people known by the American public, of similar fame to Yao Ming or Jackie Chen. Ironically, although most American people have ordered meals in his name countless times, few of them know who General Tso really was, and why this dish was named after him. People always joke that General Tso to Americans is like Colonel Harland Sanders to Chinese—people know them because of the chicken, but not so much as military officers.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, despite the fact that General Tso’s chicken was first invented in Taiwan, it never become as popular as it in the U.S.. In fact, most Chinese people have never heard of it or tasted it. General Tso is still commemorated by the Chinese people as the celebrated Qing general. Even though General Tso’s chicken is as exotic to the Chinese as it to Americans, it is still widely considered to be a Chinese dish. After all, it embodies the history of civil war, the sentimental attachment of homeland, and the struggle of early Chinese immigrants to adapt to American society. Just like how General Tso’s Chicken is rich in flavor, this dish is also rich in its cultural connotations.