The True Story Behind General Tso’s Chicken

published Jan 25, 2017
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(Image credit: Christine Han)

Whether it goes by the name General Tso’s, General Gau’s, or General Gao’s (see a spirited Yelp discussion on the matter here), the deep-fried nuggets of boneless chicken tossed in sweet-spicy sauce and served on a bed of broccoli is America’s reigning Chinese dish. According to the food delivery site GrubHub, General Tso’s chicken was the most popular Chinese takeout item of 2014, and the fourth most-ordered dish overall.

In addition to being beloved, and delicious, it turns out that General Tso’s chicken is a case study in how a Chinese dish becomes American. (The journey was even the topic of its own documentary called The Search for General Tso, produced by the Chinese-food sleuth Jennifer 8. Lee.)

Who invented the dish?

The progenitor of the General Tso’s chicken that we know and love was created by an actual Chinese chef and named after a real general. Chef Peng Chang-kuei, who died last December at the age of 98, was the inventor of General Tso’s chicken, albeit a version that most of us wouldn’t recognize if it was served to us at a Chinese restaurant.

According to his obituary in the New York Times, the Hunan-born Peng had been a chef for the Chinese National government, which escaped to Taiwan after defeat by the Communists during the revolution of 1949, and Peng went along.

Chef Peng is said to have created General Tso’s chicken in Taiwan in 1955 for a banquet welcoming the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He named the dish in honor of a Hunanese war hero, Zuo Zongtang (or Tso Tsung-t’ang), who is well-known in Hunan, even though the chicken is not.

Peng told the Chinese-food scholar Fuchsia Dunlop that the dish he made was “typically Hunanese — heavy, sour, hot, and salty.” Quite different from our General Tso’s, whose sweetness is uniquely American.

Before General Tso’s chicken came along, Americans had a long and happy history of eating Chinese-American dishes that consisted of batter-fried proteins coated in thick, sweet-and-sour sauces. “The higher the sugar content, the happier the audience,” wrote Anne Mendelson in her book, Chow Chop Suey: Food and the Chinese American Journey. General Tso’s chicken is just another stop on that flavor continuum. But with this dish, the saucing is more restrained, spared the ritual drowning that those sweet-and-sour throwbacks are subjected to.

As for the addition of broccoli, according to Lee, the vegetable isn’t even grown in China. It was introduced to the U.S. by Italian immigrants in the early 20th century and is now imported to China under the guise of “exotic” produce.

How did it get to the States?

The missing link between Peng’s born-in-Taiwan, Hunanese creation and America’s favorite Chinese chicken can be found in 1970s New York City, a time and place where Hunanese food was the hot regional Chinese cuisine.

It all started with two restaurants, Uncle Tai’s Hunan Yuan and Hunam, which would both receive four stars from the New York Times and included General Tso’s chicken on their menus.

According to the restaurateur Ed Schoenfeld, who was the host and captain at Uncle Tai’s Hunan Yuan from 1973 to 1975, the chefs from the two establishments had gone on culinary research trips to Taiwan and sought out Peng independently of one another.

“In the early ’70s both [David] Keh [owner of Uncle Tai’s Hunan Yuan] and chef TT Wang [of Hunam], the owner of the 4-star rated Shun Lee Dynasty and the Shun Lee Palace, went to Taipei looking for a new idea to bring back,” writes Schoenfeld. “They both discovered chef Peng and his Hunan-style banquet cuisine. Neither of these individuals worked for chef Peng, but they both sought out individuals who had and who knew his repertoire.”

At their peak, the restaurants were the most influential in New York, but, according to Schoenfeld, there was just one that nailed General Tso’s chicken. “It is quite clear in my mind,” continues Schoenfeld, “that it was TT Wang who crisped and sweetened the formerly spicy-tart dish that we today call General Tso’s chicken. And it is his version that has really become the popular classic that is ubiquitous.”

In a somewhat cruel twist of fate, chef Peng came to New York City about a year and a half after the opening of Uncle Tai’s Hunan Yuan and Hunam, only to be left out of the party. He opened a restaurant called Uncle Peng’s Hunan Yuan during the peak of the Hunan craze, but, at that point, writes Schoenfeld, “to New Yorkers, it seemed like the imitation rather than the original.”

In her documentary, Lee tracks down Peng in Taipei long after he has retired from the restaurant business, and asks him if he recognizes the virally popular Chinese-American dish that he helped create. You can see his reaction at around the four-minute mark of Lee’s TED Talk, in which the aging Peng dismisses the current-day General Tso as “nonsense,” then returns to his game of mah jongg.