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Appetites and Afterthoughts

General Tso’s chicken is a phony, but General Tso was the real deal

General Tso's chicken. Photo: FLICKR.COM/avlxyz

General tso’s chicken is a phony — but it still tastes good to me. And, I assume, to you, too.

Yes, there was a Ching Dynasty Chinese general named Tso. He was Tso Tsung-t’ang. In today’s Romanized Pinyin Chinese, he is Zuo Zongtang. Unlike his chicken dish, General Tso was not a phony. He was the real deal — a brilliant military tactician, and ruthless. When he was a boy, his wealthy parents sent him to a private school in China’s Hunan Province where he studied Confucius. He later became a military genius and fought in several winning battles. A tough guy, he wound up as one of the most successful military commanders in Chinese history.

CHICKEN CONFUSION REIGNS

But the fact is, General Tso never ate General Tso’s chicken. He had nothing to do with it. It wasn’t even created until many years after his death. But let me add to the confusion — not the Confucian. If you don’t believe me, ask my Chinese cookbook friends, Fuchsia Dunlop and Eileen Yin-Fei Lo. And if this doesn’t satisfy you, do a little research yourself.

FUCHSIA DUNLOP’S VERSION

Here’s the story as Fuchsia Dunlop tells it. This young English woman gained her Chinese cooking chops in Sichuan Province studying at the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine. Later she branched out and spent time in Hunan Province — much like an American cook from San Francisco might decide to go to New Orleans and explore Creole and Cajun cuisines. When Dunlop lived in Changsha, capital city of Hunan Province, she tried to find General Tso’s chicken on menus. Not only could she not find it, but she couldn’t find anyone who even knew about it.

IF YOU DON’T LIKE IT BLAME KISSINGER

In her book Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Recipes from Hunan Province, Dunlop says General Tso’s chicken was created by a Chinese Nationalist chef from Hunan named Peng Chang-kuei who fled China for Taiwan when the Communists took over the mainland in 1949. In Taiwan, he catered Chinese banquets for government officials. In 1973, Peng moved to New York City and opened — of course — a Chinese restaurant. At that time Hunan cuisine was little known in the United States. Peng’s Restaurant was near the UN building and attracted diplomats. One was U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

When Dunlop sought out Peng Chang-kuei many years later — after he had made a pile of money and closed his New York City restaurant and moved back to Taiwan — he couldn’t remember exactly when he had created General Tso’s chicken. He told her, “Kissinger visited us every time he was in New York, and we became great friends. It was he who brought Hunanese food to public notice.”

GENERAL TSO’S FAMED CHICKEN AND GOLD RUSH CHOP SUEY

Peng added, “When I began cooking for non-Hunanese people in the United States, I altered the recipe [for his creation General Tso’s chicken].” Hunan food is not sweet. It provides a slow, incendiary burn that creeps up on you. For the Kissinger version — the one most of us know today — Peng added sugar for the familiar Chinese sweet and sour taste.

Finally, Dunlop says, “The final twist in the tale is that General Tso’s chicken is now being adopted as a ‘traditional’ dish by some influential chefs and food writers in Hunan.” This is akin to the miners in the California Gold Rush being convinced chop suey was part of authentic Chinese cuisine.

EILEEN YIN-FEI LO’S VERSION

Eileen Yin-Fei Lo, the wife of my friend Fred Ferretti, himself a food writer, has a somewhat different take on the general and his chicken. In her book Chinese Kitchen, she says the dish is a Hunan classic and explains that “zongtang” was not a reference to Zuo Zongtang’s given name, but to zongtang, which means “ancestral meeting place.” She says, therefore, it refers to “Ancestral Meeting Place chicken.”

HOT, SWEET, AND SPICY

I found more than a dozen recipes for General Tso’s chicken, the sweet, slightly spicy chicken dish, served in Chinese restaurants all over the United States and usually credited as being of Hunan origin. Nevertheless, most people in Hunan Province have never heard of it. And if they have, they don’t associate it with the traditional hot, spicy, salty Hunan cuisine.

And, by the way, Peng died late last year at 98. The New York Times — which goes with Fuchsia Dunlop’s version of the origin of General Tso’s chicken — gave him a half-page obit.

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