The Real Story of General Tso’s Chicken and How to do it Best
In November 1812 Zuo Zongtang was born Xiangyin County in the Hunan Province. He would grow to be a fierce and highly respected military leader and a gifted statesman during the late Qing Dynasty. He commanded a great deal of respect from his contemporaries and he was honoured by the people of the Hunan province who would always remember his many contributions to public life.
However, in the West, he was widely known as Tso-Tsung-t’ang and his name became famous for another reason: chicken. He was not renowned for military conquests or public works, but for the now immensely popular dish General Tso’s chicken. Contrary to many popular myths General Tso did not invent this dish. In fact, he never even tried this dish consisting of dark meat, often enveloped in a light batter and a sweet and tangy sauce. He didn’t know what he was missing.
Today, General Tso is the second most famous general who came from the Hunan province, the first being Man Zedong. In fact, Mao had a greater role in the invention of the dish than did his predecessor General Tso.
During the Chinese Civil War some of the most talented chefs in the country were forced to flee to Taiwan. One of these chefs was Peng Chang-kuei. Peng was also from the Hunan province and made a career out of taking traditional dishes (often peasant food) and turning them into Chinese haute cuisine. This earned him the position of banquet chef for the nationalist government. He continued to hone his tremendous abilities in Taiwan.
In 1973 Peng took his talents to New York City, where he opened his own restaurant. While working in New York it is widely held that he invented the dish that is now referred to as General Tso’s chicken. However, the version he created is quite different from the large chunks of greasy chicken that is bathed in sauce and often served alongside pork fried rice, frequently downed by college students.
When he created this dish he decided that he would honour the second most famous general from Hunan because he could not honour Chairman Mao since he was the reason that he was forced to flee to Taiwan in the first place. The dish was unveiled in New York to great praise. Peng’s restaurant soon became a success and this dish was one of its crown jewels. As one critic opined in 1977: “General Tso’s chicken was a stir-fried masterpiece, sizzling hot both in flavour and temperature.”
Where to find General Tso’s Chicken in China
Given its history, the dish is not an authentic Chinese cuisine. Peng tried to replicate his success in America when he returned to his home province of Hunan and opened a restaurant based on the fare that made him so successful in New York. The restaurant failed and the customers complained that General Tso’s chicken was a dish that was too sweet for their liking.
So, if you happen to find General Tso’s chicken in China it is a good indication that the restaurant you are eating at is not centred on authentic Chinese cuisine. The important lesson here is that if you do like the spiciness of the dish, it is likely that you will enjoy Hunan cooking. There are many more interesting dishes that are authentic Hunan cuisine and a visit to the province can be an excellent culinary adventure.
How to make your own General Tso’s Chicken
If you simply cannot get enough of General Tso’s Chicken, it may be a dish that you’d like to add to your repertoire. The most popular versions of the dish are made from chunks of dark meat (usually thigh meat), which are battered in cornstarch and then fried before being tossed in a sweet and sour sauce and served with broccoli. There are many different interpretations of the meal.
This page claims to have the “definitive” version of the dish according to Peng’s specifications.
Here are a couple of other excellent recipes:
This is a simple and tasty recipe from food.com
Here’s another recipe thanks to The Daring Gourmet
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He has written for The Permaculture Research Institute and Uisio among other prominent outlets.
He is the author of Death: An Exploration (2016). For more visit his official website: www.lorenmayshark.com
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