February 17, 2024

And Tso It Goes

by Hudson Cooper

When I was growing up our family went out for dinner almost every Sunday night. We often went to a restaurant named China Moon. Like most Americans we never heard of Hunan, Sichuan or Cantonese. Back then we had simpler tastes and just called it Chinese food. Our choice of Chinese cuisine was more in line with Ralph Kramden and his pal Ed Norton from “The Honeymooners.” They ate dishes like chop suey, chow mein and egg foo young from the nearby “Hong Kong Gardens.” We also had egg rolls, roast pork fried rice and sweet and sour chicken. Sometimes we splurged on a duck dish that always sounded to me like “wash you up.”

            Little did we know that our tastebuds were about to be introduced to an alternative to our somewhat bland Chinese-American dishes. A Hunan-born man named Peng Chang-kuei was a chef for the Chinese National Government. That government along with many others including Peng escaped to Taiwan after the defeat by the Communists in the revolution of 1949.

            Years later, in 1955, Peng prepared a banquet in honor of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The main dish he prepared was meant to bring back mouth-watering memories of the food he grew up with in Hunan province in mainland China. The dish he invented needed a name to identify it to the Hunan region. Perhaps it was because his guests were the leaders of the military in Taiwan, Chef Peng named it “General Tso’s Chicken.” In typical Hunan style, it was hot, heavy, salty and sour.

            So, the question often asked in America is “Who was General Tso?” Unlike military and royal names bestowed on our food in America, there really was a General Tso. While we have Colonel Sanders, Cap’n Crunch, Dairy Queen and Burger King, General Tso was an actual military legend in China. However, thinking that General Tso created the dish named for him is pure nonsense. He was too busy savagely conquering other warlords to spend any time seasoning chicken in a wok.

                        Tso Tsung-tang was a statesman and military leader in the Hunan province during the Qing dynasty. General Tso passed away in 1885, 70 years before Peng created the dish named after him. Foodies and historians are so interested in him that some have even ventured to Hunan to interview his ancestral relatives. Hoping to find his original wok and perhaps a hand-written recipe, they were surprised to learn that his lineage had never heard of “General Tso’s Chicken.”

            In 1973, Peng moved to New York City and opened Uncle Peng’s Hunan Restaurant on East 44th Street. Besides the typical Chinese food that Americans were accustomed to, Peng offered a new dish, his now-famous chicken. But at first, it did not catch on. It was deemed too hot and spicy for people who were more used to chow mein and chop suey. So, Peng adjusted his recipe to make it less spicy and added some sweetness. His restaurant business boomed!

            Once his new chicken dish caught on, other restaurants claimed to be the inventors of the recipe the public craved. The famous Shun Lee Palace in Manhattan still claims that their chef invented the dish in 1972. But their “General Ching’s Chicken” never approached the notoriety of Peng’s. The debate of which chef and restaurant created the dish still goes on today.

            According to Grubhub, “General Tso’s Chicken” has become the most popular dish ordered in Chinese restaurants or as takeout. It also is the fourth most ordered menu item from all cuisines. So, from sea to shining sea, like the product made by the Colonel, Americans also think that the General’s chicken is “finger lickin’ good.”

            History has shown that the real General Tso was a ruthless warrior and savage warlord who was feared in China. So, even though we love his dish now, back in his day nobody dared call him “chicken.”

This article first appeared as one of Hudson Cooper's weekly "Random Thoughts" columns in the Sullivan County Democrat newspaper.

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