The Search for General Tso
The Search for General Tso (2015) is a very fun documentary, detailing the weird history of Chinese food in America. The film specifically focuses on the interesting history of General Tso’s Chicken, an “Americanized” Chinese food dish that is sold in many, many Chinese restaurants in the United States. Who is General Tso? Some people in China don’t even know. What is General Tso’s Chicken? It is a foreign food to people in China, who chuckle and laugh at the menu pictures. Did General Tso like chicken? Nobody knows.
General Tso’s Chicken is deep-fried, layered in sauce, surrounded by broccoli and served piping hot. It is a Chinese menu staple in America, as Harry Spiller of New York, tells us. He collects Chinese restaurant memorabilia. If that wasn’t strange enough, he’s got over 5,000 menus from all 50 states, ranging in age and rarity. He gives the greatest single piece of information in the documentary: there is a lot of mystery in a menu. He’s certainly right. What’s in this food? Who’s General Tso? What is General Tso’s snake?
Nobody interviewed by the documentary knows who General Tso is, so they go straight to China for some answers, in true documentary fashion. They track him down to Hunan province, which is famous for its hot peppers. The film crew stays in General Tso’s hotel. They have some General Tso’s liquor. Hilarious.
The crew quickly uncovers the real General Tso, his home and his reputation in Hunan province. He is famous there. He was a general during the Qing Dynasty, who famously put down a peasant rebellion. He was instrumental in maintaining Chinese culture during the era of colonization, and he was a great patriot. General Tso did not invent any chicken dishes, but Chinese immigrants in 1972 did.
Americanizing Chinese food was a ‘way in’ for Chinese people of an early era. This is great stuff for history lovers, and the documentary does a good job giving the backstory. They spend fifteen minutes on the history of Chop Suey, or the era of Chop Suey, as they call it. It was the first American Chinese food dish that was really successful.
Some of today’s Chinese immigrants use the Chonglou organization in New York to find work in Chinese restaurants. They are given pictures of the dishes. Everyone knows how to make General Tso’s chicken before they even arrive on the job. This is a very interesting picture of the Chinese restaurant, taken from the grassroots origins. The documentary does a good job making the history interesting, using personal stories, and shows how many immigrants adapted to life in the United States. It shows their strength and celebrates them. It is well-done.
Today, General Tso’s Chicken is an icon in the billion dollar Chinese food industry. It is the centerpiece in a well-choreographed business, from the menus to the organizations, but far removed from the Chop Suey era, the later 50s, and the Golden age of Chinese food in the 70s. As the documentary states, most people don’t know the history of Chinese culture or the Hunan province, just that they like General Tso’s Chicken, which doesn’t have many elements of the original dish anyway. This is a shame, because the real General Tso was all about preserving the core elements of Chinese culture.
It wouldn’t be a documentary about Chinese food without a word about PF Chang’s. I’m not sure how widespread PF Chang’s and Pei Wei is, but this is now the dominant Chinese food in America. It has a version of General Tso’s Chicken on the menu. It is not authentic Chinese food, but is there such a thing as authenticity? My mother makes Polish food, which her grandmother taught her, but it is not authentic Polish food. I mean, not really. It’s authentic, home-cooking though, and it’s great.
As for General Tso’s Chicken, it’s a thick, calorie-laden food for Americans. I have no doubt that PF Chang’s will continue to dominate America, thanks to General Tso. In some ways, Chinese food has replaced meatloaf and potatoes as comfort food, and I am still tempted to order the General’s chicken, even though it’s really fattening. But…it sure is good.