Believe it or not, General Tso's chicken, found on probably every Chinese food restaurant menu in America, isn't really a Chinese dish -- a more accurate description would be "Chinese inspired." It was also not created by a Chinese general, but rather named for the general by the chef who created it.
None of this should take away from the enjoyment of ordering and eating General Tso's chicken. There's a reason this Chinese chicken meal has conquered more hearts and minds than the general it was named for.
General Tso's chicken was created by Chef Peng Chang-kuei, who was born in China's Hunan Province when it was still controlled by the Nationalist government. After World War II, fighting between China's communists and Nationalists resumed. In 1949, the Nationalists were forced to flee the mainland, and found themselves on the island of Formosa, today known as Taiwan. Peng fled along with them.
At first, the United States didn't recognize the need to intervene in Chinese affairs, but communist aggression in the Korean War changed all that. President Harry Truman put Taiwan under American protection in 1950. The People's Republic of China, steamed that the Nationalist government could continue existing so close to the mainland, began shelling and invading offshore islands in 1954.
Now called the First Taiwan Strait Crisis, the two sides nearly went to war over the protection of the Republic of China, Taiwan's official name. Between September 1954 and May 1955, the crisis nearly boiled over into nuclear war. In 1955, Adm. Arthur W. Radford, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited Taiwan. Peng was then an official chef for the island nation's government and created the recipe for the admiral's state banquet.
Peng named the chicken after the Hunanese Qing Dynasty General Tso Tsung-t'ang (now transliterated as Zuo Zongtang). The future general began his military career fighting for the Qing in the Taiping Rebellion, a 14-year civil war waged by the Han Chinese against the Qing emperor. It remains the bloodiest civil war in history, with 20 million dead.
For his service, he was awarded titles of nobility and the governorship of Min-Zhe, an area of China that included the island of Taiwan. He ended another rebellion in Northern China during the Taiping Rebellion, and in his later career, he crushed a series of Muslim rebellions led by the Dungans. By the time of his death in 1885, he was named commander in chief of the military and imperial commissioner, a taste of power just one step below the emperor himself.
Not bad for a self-proclaimed "peasant from Xiang." Although Tso was admired by Republican Chinese generals during their war against the communists, the Republican generals were unable to emulate his success on the battlefield. Tso's only connection to his eponymous chicken dish is that he hailed from Hunan Province. Chef Peng used the traditional flavors of Hunan to create the now-famous meal.
The General Tso's chicken that you can now pick up anywhere in America is not like the chicken made for Adm. Radford in 1955. In the early 1970s, Chinese chefs opened Uncle Tai's Hunan Yuan and Hunam, the first Hunanese restaurant in New York City. After visiting Chef Peng's restaurant in Taipei, Taiwan, they took the dish home but adapted it for the American palate.
Traditional Hunan flavors are heavy, sour, hot and salty, Peng told author Fuchsia Dunlop for her 2007 publication, "Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook." The chicken itself was cut differently, the dish used different Chinese vegetables, and the sauce became sweeter. They tried to change the name to General Ching's Chicken, but General Tso won that battle, too.
When Chef Peng came to the United States himself and opened his own restaurant, he served the general's original recipe and was accused of being the imitator, not the creator. Although that first restaurant failed, he opened others that were successful. The original recipe was even featured on ABC News. As time went on, the chicken's popularity only grew, and the history of the recipe and the general that lent only his name to the dish became intertwined.
Although some writers, chefs and even historians claim General Tso's chicken was a favorite of Zuo Zongtang or was created by him, it has nothing to do with Zuo, mainland China or (if you're ordering from your neighborhood Chinese restaurant) Hunan cooking.
-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at email@example.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.
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