Gen­eral Tso and his chicken caught in food fight at col­lege cafe­te­ria

China Daily (Canada) - - ACROSS AMERICAS -

Col­lege protests have been in the news a lot this year, with “safe spa­ces”, Hal­loween cos­tumes and pro­fes­sors’ “mi­croag­gres­sions” some of the flash­points. But a more pi­quant is­sue has emerged from the din­ing halls of Ober­lin Col­lege in Ohio.

It’s an is­sue of “cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion” of food (not honor­ing a dish’s na­tive land with proper pre­sen­ta­tion), and the great Gen­eral Tso of the Qing Dy­nasty (the last one) and his epony­mous chicken are em­broiled in the con­tro­versy along with other Asia-spe­cific dishes, such as sushi (Ja­pan), banh mi sand­wiches ( Viet­nam) and Tan­doori (In­dia).

Some stu­dents at the $50,000-a-year pri­vate lib­eral arts school were steamed that the typ­i­cally fried Gen­eral Tso’s chicken was served, well, steamed.

It’s a para­dox be­cause Gen­eral Tso’s chicken is al­most al­ways deep fried (with­out re­gard to the ar­ter­ies) and smoth­ered in a hot, sweet sauce with dried red pep­pers, chives and broc­coli flow­ers of­ten sprin­kled in the crunchy mix.

The fat, sugar and caloric con­tent of the dish is in­cal­cu­la­ble (which adds to its ap­peal), and a steamed version would definitely be less fat­ten­ing and more healthy.

But this culi­nary catas­tro­phe isn’t about nu­tri­tion. The stu­dents’ ar­gu­ment is that chang­ing the cook­ing method is dis­re­spect­ing the Chi­nese dish’s orig­i­nal recipe.

Leg­end (on Chi­nese restau­rant pa­per place mats) has it that Gen­eral Tso’s chef called out sick one day, so the boss had to cook some­thing up for a din­ner party. Well the gen­eral whipped up his chicken dish, and the guests raved about it.

Leg­end aside, Gen­eral Tso was definitely Chi­nese, but his sig­na­ture dish is not from China. It’s from New York.

Ac­cord­ing to The New York Times, the recipe was in­vented by Peng Jia, a Tai­wan­based Hu­nan-cui­sine chef who had been an ap­pren­tice of Cao Jingchen, a fa­mous early 20th-cen­tury Chi­nese chef. Peng was the ban­quet chef for the Na­tion­al­ist gov­ern­ment and fled with Chi­ang Kai-shek’s forces to Tai­wan dur­ing the Chi­nese Civil War.

He stayed in that kitchen un­til 1973, when he moved to New York and opened a restau­rant on East 44th Street in Man­hat­tan.

One of Peng’s new dishes — Gen­eral Tso’s chicken — was orig­i­nally made with­out sugar and later ad­justed to suit lo­cal palates. (Shun Lee’s Palace, also in Man­hat­tan, also claims Gen­eral Tso’s as its own.)

Peng opened a restau­rant in Hu­nan prov­ince in the 1990s (it was un­suc­cess­ful), and guess what — lo­cals found his Gen­eral Tso’s chicken too sweet.

Many menu items in Chi­nese restau­rants across the United States are filled with the con­coc­tions (chop suey, egg rolls, for­tune cook­ies, chow mein) of Chi­nese im­mi­grants that cater to their Amer­i­can pa­trons’ tastes. (Many young Chi­nese-Amer­i­can chefs are staunch de­fend­ers of th­ese dishes, too.)

There also has been a trend to of­fer tra­di­tional Chi­nese main­land food in the West, and we have cov­ered its emer­gence in China Daily.

Some Chi­nese restau­rants do serve a health­ier version of Gen­eral Tso’s chicken (and its cousins sesame and or­ange chicken), but they do so by cut­ting down on the in­dus­trial strength bat­ter, not so much by chang­ing the cook­ing method.

Ober­lin’s

di­rec­tor

of din­ing ser­vices, Michele Gross, of­fered no de­fense of the col­lege’s grub and said that “in our ef­forts to pro­vide a vi­brant menu, we re­cently fell short in the ex­e­cu­tion of sev­eral dishes in a man­ner that was cul­tur­ally in­sen­si­tive. We have met with stu­dents to dis­cuss their con­cerns and hope to con­tinue this di­a­logue.”

Mi­nus the geopo­lit­i­cal provo­ca­tion, this wouldn’t have been a na­tional story.

Per­haps it could have been han­dled this way: Ex­cuse me, chef, but tomorrow when I come in for lunch, you think you might be able to fry the Gen­eral Tso’s in­stead of steaming it? Just a sug­ges­tion.

Con­tact the writer at williamhen­nelly@ chi­nadai­lyusa.com

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