A mystery most fowl
The Search for General Tso, culinary-history documentary, not rated, The Screen, 3 chiles The next time you go out for Chinese food, take a close look at the menu. Odds are it includes General Tso’s chicken, one of the most popular Chinese-American dishes in the U.S. We love these fried chicken nuggets in a sweet-and-salty sauce, but do most of us know who General Tso was? Or why a dish was named for him? Did he even like chicken? This brief but rich documentary from director Ian Cheney ( King Corn) sets out to answer those questions.
Cheney begins by traveling to Mainland China. Few people in Shanghai seem to have heard of General Tso or the chicken of the same name. When shown photos of it, they laugh, shake their heads, and say, “No idea.” One woman even thinks the meat looks more like frog than fowl. Eventually, though, Cheney lands in Hunan Province, where he discovers General Tso’s home as well as a school, a hotel, a museum, a public square, and even a liquor named after him — but still no stir-fry.
He then directs his gaze to the U.S. and the history of Chinese immigration. The Chinese cuisine we know today developed against a backdrop of racism and economic struggle. Beginning with the influx of Chinese during the Gold Rush and moving through the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972, Cheney reveals the way that immigrants in the U.S. were demonized and restricted to lowwage jobs but persevered and found success by starting restaurants rather than working for other people. Even today, the first job many immigrants to the U.S. have is in a Chinese restaurant kitchen.
Cheney crosses the country visiting numerous restaurants — even making a stop in Tucumcari — and stimulates our appetites with shots of chicken being battered, fried, and tossed with sauce in a wok. Along the way, we learn about other popular Chinese-American dishes, like cashew chicken, which originated in Springfield, Missouri. We come to understand that as a way of assimilating, proprietors of Chinese restaurants changed traditional dishes to make them more palatable to stateside customers. Americans spent years eating bland chop suey before restaurateurs like the legendary Cecilia Chiang began serving something closer to authentic Chinese cuisine. In the ensuing decades, cooks have continued to blend classic dishes with regional ones. Szechuan alligator is a mainstay at a popular Chinese restaurant in Hammond, Louisiana, for example.
The Search for General Tso includes the requisite talking heads, from academics, restaurateurs (Chiang and her son Philip, among others), and food writers (Jennifer 8. Lee and Fuchsia Dunlop) to a man who collects menus and a C.P.A. who has visited more than 6,000 Chinese restaurants across the U.S. Interspersed are lively silhouette-style animated sequences, and the score by Ben Fries and Simon Beins is cheerful and bouncy but unobtrusive. Cheney manages to maintain a bit of mystery as the film unfolds, not revealing all he learns about the origin of the dish until the end. The film is brief, breezily paced, and rather reportorial but still utterly enjoyable. In these days of locavorism, we obsess over where our food comes from and practically expect our chicken to come with a résumé. This insightful and fun documentary takes that investigation one step further.
— Laurel Gladden