THE BLOG

Who Was General Tso and Why Are We Eating His Chicken?

06/23/2014 07:17 pm ET | Updated Aug 23, 2014

by Kimberly Kohatsu, Managing Editor for the Menuism Restaurant Blog

Photo by Alpha

First and foremost, General Tso was a real guy. Tso Tsungtang was a war hero who served with brilliant distinction during China's greatest civil war, the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864), which claimed millions of lives over 14 years. Tso's ruthlessness was legendary, causing many thousands of the rebels to emigrate from China. Those who came to America largely worked on the Transcontinental Railroad, which was completed in 1869.

But this very real general had absolutely nothing to do with the battered and sauced chicken that now bears his name. In fact, it's unknown to the whole of Hunan province, Tso's home.

Instead, another well known Hunanese man may take some credit: Mao Zedong.

When Mao took over in 1949, the classically trained chefs who had served the Hunan court fled with their bosses to Taiwan. Among them was a chef named Peng Chang-kuei.

Chef Peng opened a successful restaurant in Taiwan, introducing the public to Hunan court cuisine, a haute take on the peasant-oriented food of his province. At some point in the 1950s, Peng created a dish and named it in honor of General Tso. "Originally the flavors of the dish were typically Hunanese -- heavy, sour, hot and salty," he said.

With a class of top chefs who had left China, Taiwan became a happening scene for every regional Chinese cuisine. In 1965, when America's immigration laws loosened, a wave of Chinese immigrants primarily from Hong Kong and Taiwan arrived in the United States. Enterprising chefs partnered with American restaurateurs, introducing the country, especially New York City, to great Chinese food.

By the early 1970s, New York became a culinary arms race, each new restaurant trying to up the ante on its competitors. As Ed Schoenfeld, a business partner in one of these ventures described it, "You'd see them taking out ads in the New York Times. 'I'm chef So-and-So, and I'm serving these five dishes that have never been served in the U.S. before!' one would say, and then someone else would have an ad that talked about the 10 new dishes they're serving."

As the competition intensified, two rival chefs, David Keh and T.T. Wang, both flew to Taiwan for inspiration, and both ended up at Chef Peng's restaurant. Unbeknownst to each other, the two men sampled Chef Peng's homage to General Tso, among his many other creative dishes. In 1971, upon returning to New York and within weeks of each other, each opened a Chinese restaurant with menus that nearly mirrored Peng's.

But when it came to the General Tso dish, each man took a few liberties. Chef Keh cut the chicken differently, into a small dice, and served it with water chestnuts, black mushrooms, hoisin sauce, and vinegar. Chef Wang added a crispy batter to the chicken and sweetened the sauce.

Shortly after, in 1973, Chef Peng himself arrived in New York, ready to try his own hand in the city. But with Keh and Wang already having won four-star reviews in the New York Times, Peng's version of the dish seemed like a copy of theirs, rather than the other way around. Although Peng's restaurant on 44th Street was also a success (Henry Kissinger was among his fans), he could not win back the dish now known as General Tso's chicken - a lightly battered chicken smothered in a chili-laced sweet and sour sauce.

Jennifer 8. Lee, author of the 2008 book The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, met chef Peng and showed him photos of what his child has become:

"He criticized the next picture because the chilies were red instead of black. But that was a minor crime compared to the travesties in some of the other versions he saw ... He shook his head when he saw the baby corn and carrots in a version from Dover, N.H. ... As he left, he told me that this was all moming-qimiao. Nonsense."

Kimberly Kohatsu is the Managing Editor of the Menuism Dining Blog, the educational arm of Menuism.com, a popular website where a passionate community of foodies rate their favorite dishes and comment on restaurants they've visited. Kim is also a freelance writer and marketing consultant, whose recent dining adventures revolve around ramen, cheeseburgers, and fried chicken.