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The Story Behind America’s Obsession with General Tso’s Chicken

A platter of General Tso's Chicken at a menu photo shoot.

A platter of General Tso's Chicken at a menu photo shoot. Courtesy of Ian Cheney

The Search for General Tso” is a mouthwatering documentary film that picks up where Jennifer 8 Lee’s 2008 book, “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles,” left off. Produced by Lee and Amanda Murray and directed by Ian Cheney, the film opens this month in theaters across the country and is available On Demand, and tells the story behind one of America's most popular Chinese food dishes by asking two questions: who is General Tso and why are we eating his chicken?

“The film gets its charm from the Chinese restaurant owners themselves,” notes Mitchell K. Dwyer in his 8Asians.com review, “Some of them, second and third-generation entrepreneurs, some of them offering their observations even while their parents, sitting right next to them, offer a slightly different take.”

Frank (L) and Tommy Wong of Trey Yuen in Louisiana.
Frank (L) and Tommy Wong of Trey Yuen in Louisiana. Courtesy of Ian Cheney

In America, the filmmakers visit both big city Chinese restaurants and tiny, rural eateries all serving the iconic dish. They feature Americans who love the dish and Chinese people who are baffled by it. They go to General Tso’s hometown in Hunan Province and find a celebrated war hero, revered for his role in the Qing Dynasty Taiping Rebellion, but no chicken. They talk to a retired chef in Taiwan who did create a Hunan-style chicken dish once, but is embarrassed by the “crazy nonsense” the dish has become. Along the way, they craft a delightful story about immigrant ingenuity, cultural confusion, and Asian-American adaptation.

“The film uses the ubiquitous spicy sweet chicken dish as a window into the Chinese-American immigrant experience,” said Lee. “In a way, it reflects my own experience growing up Chinese American. Looks exotic on the outside, but in reality, completely native to here.”

RECIPE: General Tso’s Chicken

(as adapted by the crew of "The Search for General Tso")

General Tso's Chicken in the wok.
General Tso's Chicken in the wok. Courtesy of Ian Cheney
Ingredients:
  • 1 pound boneless chicken thighs (Chef Peng leaves the skin on — up to you!)
  • GMO-free canola oil, for deep-frying (General Tso didn’t eat GMOs, why should you?)
  • 1 T peanut oil
  • 1 1/4 cups corn starch, plus 1 tsp (Fuchsia Dunlop uses potato flour, fun if you can find it!)
  • 1 egg (General Tso likely preferred organic eggs)
  • 2 T soy sauce, divided (You’ll use 1 T for the marinade, and 1 T for the sauce)
  • Dozen dried whole red chilies (de rigueur!)
  • 1 T tomato paste
  • 1 T rice vinegar
  • 1 tsp sesame oil
  • Dash of sugar or tsp of honey (Chef Peng would not approve.)
  • Dash of chili paste or hot sauce (Spice it up as you see fit.)
  • 1/4 cup Chicken Stock (Sequel: The Search for General Tso’s Chicken Stock?)
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 T ginger, minced
Optional
  • Orange zest, plus orange slice for garnish (Only if you live in CA; then you’re making Orange Chicken)
  • Sesame Seeds (This more or less turns it into Sesame Chicken.)
  • No scallions! Or some! Sliced on the bias. (Chef Peng serves his up sans scallions, but add if you like.)
  • Broccoli, steamed (Chef Peng would not approve, but de rigueur in America.)
Directions:
  1. Crack the egg dramatically into a bowl and stir it up, ideally while filming the whole business in slow motion. If you can get someone to hit a crash cymbal while you crack the egg, that’s ideal but not absolutely necessary. Add 1T soy sauce and stir.
  2. Cut the chicken into 1 inch chunks, and swirl ‘em around in the egg-soy marinade. Leave that be for long enough to make yourself a General Tso’s Cocktail: 1 1/2 ounces bourbon, 1/4 ounce Campari, 1/2 ounce sweet vermouth, 1/4 ounce ginger syrup, dash of Tabasco, sprig of broccoli.
  3. Mix up the sauce in a separate bowl: 1 T soy, 1 T tomato paste, 1 T rice vinegar, 1/4 cup Chicken Stock, 1 tsp sesame oil, a bit of sugar if you like, 1 tsp corn starch. There’s room for adaptation here. Don’t be alarmed if it feels too thin and watery. Once you cook it, the starch will thicken things up and you’ll be in gooey Tso heaven.
  4. Break a few of the chilis in half, discarding some seeds if you don’t like the spice, leave a few of the chilis intact.
  5. Remove the chicken from its marinade, and toss it in a bowl with the corn starch, getting it all nice and coated.
  6. Heat up the cooking oil in the wok, to around 350 ° or 375°.
  7. Fry the chicken in batches, each batch about 4 minutes or so, get the nuggets nice and golden, then remove and drain on a wire rack over some paper towels. Be careful not to light any of this on fire.
  8. Pour the oil off into another container (something that won’t melt...) and save for subsequent batches. Wipe out the wok with a paper towel.
  9. Turn the heat back on and add your 1 T peanut oil and the chilis, quickly stir-frying them for 10 seconds or so — careful, they can burn easily. Add the garlic and ginger and stir fry for maybe 15-20 seconds, then add the sauce and stir it up for a minute or so.
  10. Once the sauce is looking gooey, add the chicken and swirl it around to coat. You can also toss the chicken chunks up in the air, allowing ribbons of sauce to fly all over your kitchen. Point is: marry the sauce and the chicken.
  11. Add any optional accouterments, and serve it up!

Thanks to all the intrepid cooks who inspired this recipe, including a few of our favorites: Fuchsia Dunlop’s EveryGrain of Rice and Diana Kuan’s blog appetiteforchina.com. Also be sure to check out J. Kenji López-Alt’s amazing rendition at The Food Lab of seriouseats.com.

"The Search for General Tso" opens in theaters January 2015.
"The Search for General Tso" opens in theaters January 2015. "The Search for General Tso"