Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Search for General Tso

On January 21, I took a partial break from Noir City to see a film at the 4 Star.

The Search for General Tso; documentary; directed by Ian Cheney; English & Mandarin with subtitles; (2014) - Official Website

The Search for General Tso traces the history of the ubiquitous dish called General Tso's Chicken.  The film can be broken down into three parts - Who was General Tso?  Who created General Tso's Chicken?  How did General Tso's Chicken come to be on just about every Chinese  restaurant menu in America?

Before I forget, I should note that I was the only person in the theater.  I believe that is only the third time that I have been the sole attendee for an entire film.  Maybe I should also note that I don't like General Tso's Chicken.  The taste is not to my liking.  I cannot recall the last time I had it.  I much prefer Kung Pao Chicken or Sesame Chicken.

It turns out there was a General Tso.  He was a 19th century general, "the hero of Hunan Province."  The filmmakers visited Hunan and were shown statues, museums and other memorials to General Tso.  Interestingly, none of the mainland Chinese interviewed had tasted or even heard of General Tso's Chicken.  When shown a photo, one lady thought the dish was frog meat.  Alas, General Tso never tasted the dish which bears his name.

Rather than venture into the origins of the dish, the film next explores the history of Chinese in America.  After the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Chinese were effectively limited in the jobs they could obtain.  One common job was restaurant worker.  In order to survive, Chinese restaurants would adapt to the tastes of local (i.e. Caucasian) customers.  The dish called chop suey (which I have never seen offered in a Chinese restaurant I have been to) became popular around this time.  The filmmakers were assisted by a gentlemen who had the Guinness World Record for largest menu collection.  Searching through his collection, we see that General Tso's Chicken did not appear on any menus until the 1970s whereas as Chop Suey's prevalence declined after the 1950s.  This corresponds with a culinary movement to bring more authentic flavors and dishes to Chinese restaurants in the US.

Michael Tong, owner of New York's Shun Lee Palace, claims his restaurant was the first to serve the dish in the US (in 1972).  This claims goes largely undisputed by the filmmakers.  Implicit in the filmmakers' narrative is that Tong or one of his kitchen chefs learned of the dish from a trip to Taiwan where Chef Peng Chang-kuei invented it.  Chef Peng was a native of Hunan who fled to Taiwan with Chang Kai-shek's Nationalist government for whom he was the official banquet chef.  Chef Peng & his son recall American visitors sampling his creation in the 1960s.  Not a traditional dish, Chef Peng's chicken recipe blended classic Hunan flavors in new ways and Peng named it after the well known general from his province.  Peng even moved to New York to open a restaurant.  Although the restaurant soon closed and Peng returned to Taiwan, the popularity of his chicken item is undisputed.

Whether Peng was first or Tong was first in the US is not really important.  The important point is that in the early 1970s, General Tso's Chicken was haute cuisine in NYC.  How did it find it's way to so many Chinese restaurants in the US?  According to the film, the Chinese family associations provided restaurant training to immigrants and had territorial agreements with each other.  When a Chinese immigrant would come to New York (or SF), they would be trained on how to run a restaurant and given some stake money to set up a Chinese restaurant in the hinterlands.  That is how it came to be that small towns with no significant Chinese population came to have at least one Chinese restaurant.  Since General Tso's Chicken was modified to suit American tastes (it's sweeter than the original recipe), it was taught to the would-be restaurateurs who, like Chinese Johnny Appleseeds, spread the dish to all parts of America.

The Search for General Tso was entertaining enough.  For better or worse, it had the look and feel of a PBS documentary.  At 71 minutes, it seems to have been constructed to be easily edited into a 60 minute television spot.  The filmmakers keep a light touch on a minor subject while touching briefly on the racism and other difficulties encountered by Chinese immigrants.  The film is a solid effort by an experienced documentary film director.  Ian Cheney directed King Corn (2007) which made a big splash on film festival and indie theater circuit.

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