The Strange Tale of General Tso's Chicken

General Tso's (or Zuo's) chicken is the most famous Hunanese dish in the world. A delectable concoction of lightly battered chicken in a chili-laced, sweet-sour sauce, it appears on restaurant menus across the world, but especially in the eastern United States, where it seems to have become the epitome of Hunanese cuisine. Despite its international reputation, however, the dish is virtually unknown in Hunan itself. When I went to live there in 2003, I scoured restaurant menus for it in vain, and no one I met had ever heard of it. And as I deepened my understanding of Hunanese food, I began to realize that General Tso's chicken was somewhat alien to the local palate, because Hunanese people have little interest in dishes that combine sweet and savory tastes. So how on Earth did this strange, foreign concoction come to be recognized abroad as the culinary classic of Hunan Province?

General Tso's chicken is named for Tso Tsung-t'ang (now usually transliterated as Zuo Zongtang), a formidable nineteenth-century general who is said to have enjoyed eating it. He was born in 1812 in Xiangyin county, Hunan province, and died in 1885 after a glittering career in the Qing dynasty civil and military administration. He led successful military campaigns against various rebel groups, but is best known for recapturing the great western desert region of Xinjiang from rebellious Uyghur Muslims. The Hunanese have a strong military tradition, and General Tso is one of their best-known historical figures. But although many Chinese dishes are named after famous personages (like, for example, the Sichuanese Gong Bao Chicken), there is no record of any dish named after General Tso in the classic texts on Hunanese food and cooking.

The real roots of the dish lie in the chaotic aftermath of the Chinese civil war, when the leadership of the defeated Nationalist party fled to the island of Taiwan. They took with them many talented people from the mainland, including a number of notable chefs, and foremost among them was Peng Chang-kuei. Peng was born in 1919 into a poverty-stricken household in the Hunanese capital Changsha. As a teenager, he served as apprentice to Cao Jingchen, a famous chef who had just opened his own restaurant. Cao had previously served as private chef to the Nationalist official and great Hunanese gourmet Tan Yankai, and was one of the most outstanding cooks of his generation. He worked in a period generally known as the golden age of Hunanese cooking, when the capital Changsha was the center of a flourishing culinary scene.

After his hard years of apprenticeship, Peng Chang-kuei won acclaim as a chef in his own right. By the end of World War II he was in charge of Nationalist government banquets, and when the Nationalists met their humiliating defeat at the hands of Mao Zedong's Communists in 1949, he fled with them to Taiwan. There, he continued to cater for official functions, devising menus for presidential feasts and visiting VIPs, and inventing many new dishes.

When I met Peng Chang-kuei, a tall, dignified man in his eighties, during a visit to Taipei in 2004, he could no longer remember exactly when he first cooked General Tso's chicken, although he says it was sometime in the 1950s. "General Tso's chicken did not preexist in Hunanese cuisine," he said, "but originally the flavors of the dish were typically Hunanese — heavy, sour, hot and salty."

In 1973, Peng went to New York, where he opened his first restaurant on 44th Street. At that time, Hunanese food was unknown in the United States, and it wasn't until his cooking attracted the attention of officials at the nearby United Nations HQ, and especially of the American Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, that he began to make his reputation. "Kissinger visited us every time he was in New York," says Peng Chang-kuei, "and we became great friends. It was he who brought Hunanese food to public notice." In his office in Taipei, Peng still displays a large, framed black-and-white photograph of Kissinger and himself raising wineglasses at his restaurant, Peng's.

Peng Chang-kuei was no hidebound traditionalist, and, faced with new circumstances and new customers, he worked creatively, inventing new dishes and adapting old ones. "The original General Tso's chicken was Hunanese in taste and made without sugar," he says, "but when I began cooking for non-Hunanese people in the United States, I altered the recipe." In the late 1980s, having made his fortune, he sold up and returned to Taipei. His New York venture was to have enormous impact on the cooking of the Chinese diaspora. Not only General Tso's chicken, but other dishes that he invented, have been widely imitated, and his apprentices have helped to disseminate his style of cooking.

The final twist in the tale is that General Tso's chicken is now being adopted as a "traditional" dish by some influential chefs and food writers in Hunan itself. In 1990, Peng returned to his hometown, Changsha, where he opened a high-class restaurant that included General Tso's chicken on its menu. The restaurant itself did not last long, and the dish was never popular ("too sweet," one local chef told me), but some leading figures in the culinary establishment did learn how to make it. And when they began to travel abroad to give cooking demonstrations in the 1990s, it seems likely that their overseas audiences would have expected them to produce that famous "Hunanese" dish, General Tso's chicken. Perhaps it would have seemed senseless to refuse to acknowledge a dish upon which the international reputation of Hunanese cuisine was largely based – especially when very little, if anything, else was known about Hunanese cuisine. Maybe, also, it would have been embarrassing to admit that the most famous "Hunanese" dish in the world was a product of the exiled Nationalist society of Taiwan and not of Hunan itself, with all the implications of the relative success of Taiwan's development over the course of the twentieth century. Whatever their motivations, they began to include the dish in publications about Hunanese cooking, especially those aimed at a Taiwan readership.

The vast majority of Hunanese people have still never heard of General Tso's chicken, and I have never seen it on a Hunanese restaurant menu, but some of the cosmopolitan culinary elite now claim it as a historical dish. Only the older generation, including Peng Chang-kuei and the senior chefs he met during his time in Changsha, remember the details of how the dish was created, and acknowledge with a smile that it is an invented tradition.

But even if General Tso's chicken is not an "authentic" Hunanese dish, it has to be seen as part of the story of Hunanese cuisine. It doesn't tell the same story as the dishes eaten in remote Hunanese villages, where some cooking methods haven't changed for millennia, but it is a key part of recent culinary history. After all, it embodies a narrative tale of the old Chinese apprentice system and the Golden Age of Hunanese cookery; the tragedy of civil war and exile; the struggle of the Chinese diaspora to adapt to American society; and in the end the opening up of China and the re-establishment of links between Taiwan and the Mainland.

And because the dish has, through the vagaries of history, become known as the Hunanese dish par excellence, how could I even think of omitting it from this book? So please cook it, and savor it, and dream as you do so of the Hunanese past, and the invention of new mythologies in the cultural melting pots of the modern world.

The above commentary appears in Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook by Fuchsia Dunlop. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

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