A mys­tery most fowl

Pasatiempo - - Moving Images -

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

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