Tasteful doc discovers General Tso

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Broccoli, scallions, crimson chili peppers and a sweet and tangy sauce delight American fans of Chinese cuisine — but apparently, we’re doing it all wrong.

by Anthony Harrison

Raise your hand if you’ve ever eaten Chinese food.

Whether you favor lo mein, moo goo gai pan or sweet-and-sour whatever, most Americans know the big brown bags filled with little white boxes and packets of soy sauce — with no MSG added.

The Search for General Tso, a new documentary by King Corn director Ian Cheney, attempts to uncover the origin behind one of the most beloved and ubiquitous Chinese takeout dishes in America: General Tso’s Chicken.

Restauranteur and Rob Reiner-lookalike Ed Schoenfeld even says in the film, “I don’t think General Tso’s Chicken is the most popular ethnic dish in the country because there’s pizza.”

The question of how General Tso’s became one of the mainstays of Chinese takeout leads to a complicated answer. After all, it isn’t even authentic Chinese food.

The Search for General Tso shows on two screens in the Triad: A/perture Cinema in Winston-Salem and Greensboro’s RED Cinema. RED Cinema, the most recent acquisition by real-estate magnate Marty Kotis, featured as part of the rebranding a chemic new-paint smell from its scarlet makeover.

Cheney’s film takes the viewer from New York City to Shanghai, from Taiwan to San Francisco and from to Syracuse, NY to Springfield, Mo., introducing a cast of characters as varied as chefs and food authors to passers-by and eccentric menu collectors, all in an attempt to nail down who invented the dish, why it’s popular and who General Tso really was.

A searing-hot wok crisps the chicken used for America’s favorite Chinese takeout menu item.
A searing-hot wok crisps the chicken used for America’s favorite Chinese takeout menu item.

The lattermost question elicits myriad answers, despite the fact that General Tso was a real historical figure. The truth remains: He lived in Hunan, China in the 19th Century and helped smash the Taiping Rebellion. As the film shows, Hunan province reveres General Tso to this day, honoring him with everything from giant statues to elementary schools bearing his name.

But the myth behind the meal — that General Tso’s chef invented the tangy chicken dish — exists only as legend. What we know as General Tso’s Chicken isn’t even a featured menu item in China today.

“I have not seen [General Tso’s Chicken] directly on a menu in China,” said one Shanghai-based food critic.

Cheney proves this fact when he travels to Shanghai and Hunan, presenting Chinese citizens, grocers and chefs pictures of the famous dish. Most seem baffled and clueless.
“That doesn’t look like chicken,” one woman said. “It looks like frog.”

The confusion occurs again when Cheney hands people fortune cookies.

“Is it edible?” one man asked.

That’s because many foods we call “Chinese” really aren’t Chinese at all. Many dishes, from chop suey to cashew chicken, came to be right here in America.

And it’s here where The Search for General Tso becomes an extraordinary documentary. During the discussion about Chinese food and its origins, the film tells the story of the Chinese immigrant experience, with interviews from historians and Chinese-Americans across the country, detailing their hardships, perseverance, bravery and savvy.

Chinese citizens began immigrating to America en masse during the 1849 California Gold Rush, settling down in and around San Francisco. From the start, they faced inhumane persecution, culminating in the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, forcing them to find different avenues of work. First came laundries, then restaurants.

Following the Exclusion Act, a Chinese-American exodus from California spread families across the country, with many settling in sparsely populated areas as the only Chinese people in their towns.

Even though Chinese people now make up only 1 percent of the US population — “a drop in the bucket,” one historian said — this insular diaspora spread Chinese restaurants across the nation, building a foundation for a future infrastructure.
Restauranteurs endured tough times until the postwar era, when Americans became attracted to the relatively exotic, flavorful food offered to them by their local Chinese restaurants. The boom peaked in the ’70s, and that’s when General Tso’s Chicken established itself on takeout menus across the nation.

“[Americans] had the urge for something different,” said restauranteur Michael Tang.

Still, this doesn’t explain how General Tso’s Chicken became the wildly popular choice of many Americans; it didn’t even exist until the 1960s.

The documentary makes something of a definitive statement on the issue, but who “invented” General Tso’s Chicken and spread its popularity remains a mystery yet. The Search for General Tso does its best at tastefully presenting the evidence.