A Culture of Food: General Tso’s Chicken

Every day around the world, from lunch to suppertime, I would infer that millions of gastro-guzzling citizens drift into Chinese Restaurants around the world. Many Americans experience what we interpret as ‘Chinese food’ at a Chinese Buffet where you, I, or they stare through the plexiglass of the water heated display and fight the billowing clouds of steam that blisters our fore arms as we reach to get a deep fried crab rangoon. While making your oversized portioned plate, do you make room on your plate beside of your egg roll and ham fried rice for the General Tso’s chicken? I wonder if you find yourself wondering to whom do we owe tribute for this delicious spicy chicken dish that we plop on our plate? Did you ever think about who the real General Tso actually was and why did he love spicy Chinese chicken? Was he real or was he just a name that popped into the head of a Chinese-American line cook? After leaving my favorite Chinese Food buffet one night a couple of years ago, I just had to find out.

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The real General Tso was actually a Chinese military leader from the Qing Dynasty named Zuo Zongtang. He was born in 1812 to a poor family in the Hunan province of China. In his youth he failed his court exams multiple times (which was a terrible disgrace to him and his family) and returned home to his wife and devoted himself to his studies. He took up silkworm and tea farming; but all things changed in 1850 when he was 38 years old. During the Taiping Rebellion (a civil war started by a Chinese guy who quite literally thought that he was the son of God and the younger brother of Jesus 671px-Governor-General_of_Shan_gan,_Zuo_Zongtang,_in_Military_Garments_with_Long_Court_Beads._Lanzhou,_Gansu_Province,_China,_1875_WDL1904Christ), the gentle farmer decided that he would lay down his garden spade for a sword. Silkworm farmer Zuo Zongtang became General Tso. Well not literally. His name was still Zuo Zongtang and he started out as the secretary for the governor; but never-the-less he was on his way. There is an old saying that says that ‘war makes a man’…well war didn’t make Tso, Tso made war. He got 5,000 soldiers to come forth to fight. SO in all actuality I guess you really could say that Tso made war and war made Tso. For the rest of his life, he would wield a sword; becoming one of the most important military commanders in Chinese history and one of the most respected Generals in all of combat history.

So knowing that, you are probably still wondering, how did a great war veteran who became the Viceroy of Liangjang (one of China’s highest titles) before deciding to take one more commission as General become synonymous with a Chinese restaurant dish. Well if any of you grew up in America during the 50s, 60s, and 70s; you can acclimate that Chinese restaurants were popping up all over the United States and were bearing influence on popular culture. But the Chinese restaurant had been a staple in the American landscape for many years before the townspeople from Mayberry on the Andy Griffith show started taking trips to one of the two Mount Pilot’s Chinese restaurants. Chinese restaurants started popping up in the United States during the California Gold Rush and the first documented Chinese restaurant, called The Canton Restaurant, was opened in San Francisco in 1849. Many of these restaurants looked very western on the exterior but beamed with beautiful Chinese furnishings within.

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Many many years after the Mei Lai Wah restaurant was opened near Columbus Park in New York City’s Chinatown in the 1880s; a Taiwanese chef named Peng Chang-kuei created what would become ‘the most famous Hunanese dish in the world’. The lightly battered, dark meat chicken tossed in its chilli-hinted sweet-and-sour sauce was like many other dishes that we Americans consider to be ‘staple Chinese dishes’. Though the Hunanese dishes are normally salty, hot and sour in their origins, the dish is not a classic Chinese dish. Chef Peng, who was the official chef for the Nationalist government (which had reluctantly fled to Taiwan after the 1949 Chinese revolution) said that he created the dish when United States Navy Admiral Arthur W. Radford (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) visited during the 1955 Taiwan Straight Crisis. In a spur of the moment due to the political climate decided to name the dish after the Hunanese general Zuo Zongtang, who had helped stop a series of rebellions in the 19th century.

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The dish made its way to America when two men from the Hunan province opened up a Chinese restaurant in 1972 in the same city. They had visited one of Mr. Peng’s restaurants in Taipei and once in America, they adapted the dish which Mr. Peng described as “(t)ypically Hunanese — heavy, sour, hot and salty.” The original recipe was made without sugar but one of the 4 ‘main attractions’ that they had on their menu was their version of ’General Tso’s Chicken’. Their Americanized version was deliciously sweet, yet had the slightly spicy roots of the Hunanese deep fried chicken recipe in mine. And even though the dish may bear his name, the General never got to taste the dish. That great warrior of the Qing dynasty, who killed thousands upon thousands while subduing thousands of rebels and up-risers carved his name into Chinese history by the point of a sword; never sunk his teeth into the recipe that would bring the dish using his misspelled name into thousands of Americanized Chinese buffets and take out joints all across North America. I am forever thankful for the inventive expatriate Chinese chef who awarded him with his culinary name to fame. I will salute you next time I pick up my chop sticks General Tso.

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Images: 

Chinese Buffet by Lyndi & Jason from Dallastown Pa, United States – china buffet.JPG, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3300823

General Tso’s Chicken by 1700-talet – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33113297

Zuo Zongtang by Boiarskii, Adolf-Nikolay Erazmovich – http://dl.wdl.org/1904.png, Public Domain, http://www.wdl.org/en/item/1904

Postcard view of the interior of a San Francisco Chinese restaurant by Unknown – https://collections.carli.illinois.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/nby_teich/id/422789, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=67077894

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