Documentary Searches for Origins of General Tso’s Chicken

Director Ian Cheney and co-producer Jennifer 8. Lee introduced a screening of "The Search for General Tso" at the Tribeca Film Festival on Monday. (Photo by Antonia Massa/Voices of New York)

Director Ian Cheney and co-producer Jennifer 8. Lee introduced a screening of “The Search for General Tso” at the Tribeca Film Festival on Monday. (Photo by Antonia Massa/Voices of NY)

Ten years ago, Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis pulled off the road for a bite to eat. After a long day of road tripping across America while working on their documentary “King Corn,” the two filmmakers needed some sustenance. They found a small Chinese restaurant and ordered the usual: General Tso’s chicken.

The plate of spicy-sweet comfort food got Cheney thinking.

“There was something about the time and the place that made us both say, ‘Who is General Tso? And why are we all eating his chicken?’” said Cheney.

This was 2004, so they couldn’t Google the answer on their smartphones. But whatever the strange, mysterious origin of the ubiquitous Chinese dish, Cheney speculated it could be fodder for a new film.

Years later, he teamed up with Jennifer 8. Lee, author of “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles,” to tell the story of General Tso’s chicken in documentary form.

“The Search for General Tso”, which Cheney directed and Lee co-produced, made its premiere at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival this week.

There’s more to “The Search for General Tso” than explanation of the little-known origins of a beloved Chinese dish. The film examines the links between the emergence of Chinese food and slow acceptance of Chinese immigrants in the United States, the precise ways General Tso’s chicken (and recipes like it) appeal to American palates, and the history of the real General Tso.

As Liang Xiao Jin, a Qing dynasty historian and fifth-generation descendant of General Tso explains in the film, General Tso was a powerful 19th century general from Hunan province. He helped stamp out the Taiping Rebellion, a civil war that broke out in southern China in 1850. General Tso was concerned with protecting the Chinese province and keeping Western influence out of China.

“He always wanted to keep the westerners out of China,” said Lee. “So, if you told General Tso that this dish was named after him, I think he’d raise his eyebrows.”

During General Tso’s lifetime, the first major wave of  Chinese immigrants arrived in America for the California Gold Rush. They faced fierce discrimination and xenophobia from American citizens that eventually came to a head in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Many Chinese had no choice but to be self-employed, and they resorted to opening laundry services and restaurants. To attract business, Chinese restaurants used recipes that catered to American tastes. One of the first such dishes was chop suey.

“Chop suey is in some ways the grandpa of what is now General Tso’s chicken,” said Lee.

Chop suey, which combined meats already familiar to Americans, like chicken, beef, and pork, with vegetables like bean sprouts, became the first Chinese food staple to take off in the U.S. Later on in the 20th century, when General Tso’s chicken debuted, it used a similar paradigm of catering to well-established American flavor preferences – deep-fried chicken was already a beloved hit in American cuisine, and Chinese restaurateurs struck gold when they combined it with a sweet, tangy sauce.

“I think if you look at all of the chicken dishes at Chinese restaurants, General Tso’s chicken has emerged victorious over everything else, like sesame chicken and orange chicken,” said Lee.

As “The Search for General Tso” illustrates, there has been some debate over who exactly created General Tso’s chicken first. Two different chefs lay claim to the legendary dish: Peng Chang-kuei, a Hunanese chef who moved to New York, and chef T.T. Wang of New York’s Shun Lee Palace. The filmmakers hear out both sides, and even pay a visit to Peng’s Agora Garden in Taipei, Taiwan, where they interview the aging Chef Peng.

Featuring historians and eccentrics – including a Chinese restaurant menu collector and a tax attorney who has eaten at more than 6,000 Chinese restaurants – “The Search for General Tso” pieces together a picture of  how this quintessential dish originated and came to dominate Chinese restaurants across the U.S.

“The Search for General Tso” has one more showing in the Tribeca Film Festival, on Thursday, April 24 at 9:00 p.m. The documentary will also appear in Boston’s Independent Film Festival this week.

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