A Brief History of General Tso’s Chicken

From haute cuisine to takeout

general tso's chicken
1700-talet via Wikimedia Commons

Take a look at just about any Chinese restaurant in the United States and their menu will probably have General Tso’s Chicken hanging out somewhere between the lo mein and the beef with broccoli. But while the sweet and saucy chicken nuggets typically come in a greasy takeout box with an egg roll and pork fried rice on the side, the dish was first cooked in a fancy restaurant in Taiwan in the 1950s.

General Tso's Chicken may be named after a 19th century Hunanese general, but he certainly never ate anything resembling the sticky-sweet meal. The dish as most Americans know it today was invented by Peng Chang-kuei, a chef from the Hunan province. A well-known and talented chef, Peng orchestrated and supervised the grand banquets of the Chinese Nationalist government from the end of World War II until they were toppled by Mao Zedong’s Communists in 1949, Fuschia Dunlop wrote for The New York Times Magazine in 2007. Peng fled the country and found refuge in Taiwan alongside the Nationalist leadership.

“Originally the flavors of the dish were typically Hunanese — heavy, sour, hot and salty,” Peng told Dunlop in 2004.

During the 1950s, Taiwan became a haven for classical Chinese cuisine. Peng opened a restaurant in the capital of Taipei and for years served food inspired by traditional Hunanese cooking, including the now famous General Tso’s Chicken, as Jennifer 8. Lee shows in her film, "The Search for General Tso." But the dish as most Americans know it today is nothing like Peng’s original version.

“It's really not the same. It's not sweet, not deep fried, and has sometimes skin and bone thing going on,” Lee wrote for The Huffington Post in 2014.

“This is all crazy nonsense,” Peng says in a scene in the film, after examining several photos of General Tso’s Chicken from restaurants across the United States.

While inspired by Peng’s dish, modern General Tso’s Chicken has more in common with a version cooked by a New York City chef named Tsung Ting Wang. The executive chef and part-owner of New York’s Shun Lee Palace, Wang has been credited for helping to popularize spicy Sichuan cuisine in the United States – as well as poaching General Tso’s Chicken from Peng’s original menu, Francis Lam wrote for Salon in 2010. In the 1970’s, as Wang was preparing to open his now-famous Hunam Restaurant, he traveled to Taiwan looking for inspiration from the Hunanese cooks who sought refuge there from Mao’s Communist regime. He discovered Peng’s restaurant and along with it, General Tso’s Chicken.

“Chef Wang added a crispier batter to the chicken, and made the sauce sweet,” restaurateur Ed Schoenfeld told Lam.

When Peng opened his own New York City restaurant the next year, he was furious to discover that New Yorkers were already eating his food – albeit a sweeter, fried version. Not to mention that many diners believed that he was the one ripping off Wang, when it was the other way around, Lam wrote. Eventually, even Peng adapted his own dish, giving in to American palates.

“The original General Tso’s chicken was Hunanese in taste and made without sugar,” Peng told Dunlop. “But when I began cooking for non-Hunanese people in the United States, I altered the recipe.”

General Tso’s Chicken has proven so popular that even chefs in Hunan Province have begun introducing the dish to their menus as “traditional,” even though it is nothing of the sort. 

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