Pur­su­ing Gen­eral Tso and his chicken

China Daily (Canada) - - FRONT PAGE - By AMY HE in New York amyhe@chi­nadai­lyusa.com

Ian Cheney was on his way to Iowa to make a film when he and his film­ing part­ner stopped in a small town in Ohio at a lo­cal Chi­nese restau­rant. He or­dered what he usu­ally did: Gen­eral Tso’s chicken.

The chicken dish is a sta­ple in Chi­nese restau­rants, a sweet and spicy, deep-fried dish that of­ten is paired with broc­coli, and some­times with red chili pep­pers or scal­lions sprin­kled on top.

“There was some­thing about this place, this out­post in the mid­dle of Amer­ica serv­ing this very fa­mil­iar red chicken dish that made us both won­der, ‘Who was Gen­eral Tso, and why in so many small towns across Amer­ica are we eat­ing his chicken?’ ” Cheney re­called.

The idea for mak­ing the doc­u­men­tary stayed with Cheney for years un­til he met Jen­nifer 8 Lee, a for­mer New York Times re­porter who wrote about Chi­nese-Amer­i­can food for her 2008 book, The For­tune Cookie Chron­i­cle.

A chap­ter in Lee’s book was de­voted to the story be­hind Gen­eral Tso’s chicken, one of the most rec­og­niz­able dishes in Chi­nese-Amer­i­can cui­sine, and the sub­ject of Cheney’s new­est doc­u­men­tary The Search for Gen­eral Tso.

“We started talk­ing, and I in­ci­den­tally had been think­ing about do­ing a doc­u­men­tary, but re­al­ized very quickly when I started the book that I didn’t have the skill to do a doc­u­men­tary, so I shelved it un­til when we came to­gether,” Lee told China Daily.

Lee was brought on by Cheney as ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer to help the film raise money and for her knowl­edge of Chi­nese Amer­ica and Chi­nese food.

When Lee was first ap­proached by lit­er­ary agents to write a book, she said she had never got­ten ex­cited about a topic un­til one on Chi­nese food came along.

“I orig­i­nally did an ar­ti­cle for The New York Times that fol­lowed a Chi­nese fam­ily from New York City to Ge­or­gia when they opened a Chi­nese restau­rant, and that was my first eye-open­ing ex­pe­ri­ence to how alien Amer­i­can Chi­nese food was for Chi­nese peo­ple from China,” she said. “That sort of made me re­al­ize, ‘Oh, for­tune cook­ies aren’t Chi­nese! Gen­eral Tso’s chicken isn’t Chi­nese!’ That made me think twice about what it means to be Chi­nese in Amer­ica,” said Lee, now CEO of a tech company in San Francisco.

Dur­ing a span of three years, Cheney and his film­ing part­ner Curt El­lis trav­eled across the US talk­ing to Chi­nese restau­rant own­ers. They also vis­ited Shang­hai, Hu­nan prov­ince and Taipei to get a lo­cal take from Chi­nese res­i­dents. There found Americans and Chi­nese who were con­fused about the dish, but not in the same ways, Cheney said.

Peo­ple in the US knew what a popular dish Gen­eral Tso’s chicken was, but some did not know who the gen­eral was.

In China, peo­ple knew who Gen­eral Tso (Zuo Zong­tang) was — a Qing dy­nasty mil­i­tary leader — but were con­fused about the dish, be­cause it doesn’t ex­ist on the Chi­nese main­land.

The gen­eral,

in­ci­den­tally, lived from 1812 to 1855 and was known for his role in sup­press­ing the Taip­ing Re­bel­lion. On those pa­per place­mats you’ll find in many Chi­nese restau­rants, legend has it that Gen­eral Tso’s chef called in sick one day when he had a din­ner party planned, so he whipped up his sig­na­ture dish to rave reviews.

Cheney in­ter­viewed Peng Chuangkuei, a Tai­wan-based chef from Hu­nan prov­ince who is gen­er­ally cred­ited with cre­at­ing Gen­eral Tso’s chicken for a ban­quet in Tai­wan. When the dish was brought to New York City in the mid-1970s, it was changed to ap­peal to the Amer­i­can palate, which in­cluded adding sugar and pair­ing it with broc­coli. An en­try on wikipedia.com says that Peng’s restau­rant on East 44th Street in Man­hat­tan was the first to serve the dish in the US.

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