On Sunday night in Hollywood, a crowd of foodies and cinephiles gathered at the tiny, 99-seat Arena Cinema for a screening of the documentary The Search for General Tso, followed by a Q&A with L.A.-based food writers Zach Brooks and Evan Kleiman and producer Jennifer 8. Lee, whose book, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food, helped shape the course of the film.
Directed by Ian Cheney (King Corn, The City Dark), The Search for General Tso is much more than an origin story of the sweet and spicy fried chicken dish—also known as General Gau’s, General Tao’s, General Tsao’s and even Admiral Tso’s (at the U.S. Naval Academy). The film is an eye-opening and often humorous examination of the immigrant experience in America.
Here are 11 things Paste learned about the General, the chicken dish and Chinese American culture.
Before conquering Chinese American restaurants, the real General Tso hailed from China’s Hunan Province. He was a ruthless military leader of the Qing Dynasty, who helped put down the Taiping peasant rebellion in the mid-19th century. He probably never had the chicken that bears his name—in fact, most of mainland China probably hasn’t either. Some of the film’s funniest scenes feature filmmakers showing pictures of General Tso’s chicken to Chinese people on the streets, and they have no clue what the dish is.
The aforementioned Taiping Rebellion led to abject poverty in southern China, and when word spread of the California Gold Rush in 1849, Chinese men began immigrating in large numbers across the Pacific. Many of the newcomers were Cantonese, hailing from the Guangdong Province.
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first significant federal law that limited immigration to the United States. It placed a 10-year moratorium on Chinese workers entering the country, particularly California. It also placed strict limitations on the type of work that could be undertaken by Chinese laborers already in the U.S., helping the immigrants establish a market share of laundries and restaurants. (These were seen as feminine, nonthreatening jobs.)
Chinese restaurateurs found that they could adapt simple Chinese dishes to American tastes to bridge cross-cultural palate divides. Chop suey, a mix of various meats and veggies covered in a flavorless sauce, became a national phenomenon in the latter part of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Large signs that advertised “chop suey” popped up from San Francisco to New York, promoting a dish that basically translates into “odds and ends.”
With the Chinese diaspora now across the United States, there’s a regionalism that develops in the cuisine, so Trey Yuen restaurants in Louisiana offer delicacies such as Szechuan spicy alligator and honey pecan shrimp; Leong’s Asian Diner in Springfield, Mo. lays claim to creating Springfield-style cashew chicken. If General Tso’s Chicken isn’t a popular menu offering in your area, then opt for the cashew chicken, orange chicken or lemon chicken option that’s probably offered instead since the dishes are similar in ingredients and taste.
Not exactly. The rise of communist China in 1949 brought with it a backlash against Chinese culture and cuisine in the U.S. The Search for General Tso posits that “Chinese food was in the doldrums” during the Cold War. Tricky Dick’s landmark 1972 visit to China to promote cultural exchanges between the countries helped usher in the “golden age of Chinese dining,” with more authentic and well-seasoned fare hitting American plates for the first time.
In the midst of this food renaissance, Michael Tong’s influential Shun Lee Palace in New York and his business partner-chef T.T. Wang are often credited with first serving—and then popularizing—General Tso’s Chicken in the U.S. in 1972. However, in the documentary Tong reveals that he actually tried a version of General Tso’s Chicken in Taiwan in the 1960s, at Peng’s Hunan Yuan. Chef C.K. Peng, who, like the general, hails from Hunan, named the dish after his provincial hero. Peng’s original dish isn’t sweet, skinless or breaded, and doesn’t include scallions or broccoli. Film producer Jennifer 8. Lee tried the dish in Taipei and described the experience to the Arena audience as “mind-blowingly different.”
Lee said that Chinese food can be found on all seven continents, including Antarctica: “Monday night is Chinese food night at McMurdo Station.”
When asked about possible trends in the U.S., Lee said to look for Muslim Chinese cooking, which is more prevalent in Western China. The dishes mix Middle Eastern flavors and traditional Chinese fare. Halal Chinese, depending on specific region of origin, focuses especially on duck, seafood, lamb, mutton, beef and noodle dishes—no pork.
The crew of The Search for General Tso has adapted its own General Tso’s Chicken recipe, inspired by chefs C.K. Peng and T.T. Wang, restaurateur Ed Schoenfeld (Red Farm) and several other connoisseurs. We love the side commentary on the list of ingredients and cooking steps listed on postcards and its website. Our favorite item description: “GMO-free canola oil, for deep frying. (General Tso didn’t eat GMOs, why should you?)”
Seriously, eat something before watching this movie. (Luckily, the Arena Cinema audience was treated to a General Tso’s tasting after the screening on Sunday.) The food photography/cinematography by Taylor Gentry is mouthwateringly good—so don’t be surprised if you find yourself heading straight from the theater to the nearest Panda Express or P.F. Chang’s.
The Search for General Tso is playing now in select theaters and is also available on VOD.
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter.