The Secret History of General Tso’s Chicken

Mickey Paraskevas General Tso Cartoon
Cartoon by Mickey Paraskevas

One of my favorite Chinese dishes is General Tso’s Chicken. There is a sticky, sweet red sauce that is slathered over pieces of chicken that is delicious. It goes great over rice. Many people I know like General Tso’s Chicken.

Sometimes when I eat a food named after a person, I try to imagine that person. I’ve eaten General Tso’s Chicken for 40 years. I imagine in ancient times, more ancient than any western civilization times, General Tso arrives at his campfire after a battle and, when asked what he wants to eat, tells them “the usual,” and so they make him his chicken.

I wonder whether he had invented this chicken dish. Perhaps when he was younger, just a colonel or before that a lieutenant, slashing his way through enemy forces, he was thinking about the campfire that he could retire to and, perhaps, this dish he’d cook up for the rest of his forces. He’d pass it around. Everyone’s all hot and sweaty. There’s hot tea.

It wasn’t General Tso’s Chicken then, and I don’t even think it was Colonel Tso’s Chicken. It was probably just called, by his friends, Tso’s Chicken. And everyone happily slapped him on the back after they ate it. And then, when he became the general and he ruled over all the land, the news of his delicious chicken, General Tso’s Chicken, spread far and wide. He didn’t have to cook it then. He was the General. His soldiers would cook it for him. His soldiers didn’t have much in those days, but they had his chicken. It was the least they could do.

Well, these are just the things I think about when I eat this chicken. Thank you, sir.

So then the other day, I did some research to find out just how close to the mark I was about this. Turns out, General Tso was a real person, though Tso was just a nickname. His real name was General Zuo Zongtang and he was born in 1812 and died in 1885.

What was going on in China during those days? Well, they were interesting times. The Qing Dynasty was in power from before he was born until well after he died. They did things big time in China even then. The Qings took over in 1644. They lasted until 1912.

It’s likely that Tso fought the British in the First Opium War in 1840 and helped the Chinese win. He would have been 28 at the time. Probably just a lieutenant. He would surely have been promoted to general by 1850, when the Qings had to put down the Taipei Rebellion. He would have been 38 when it started. It went on for nearly 14 years, till the Taipings were squashed. So General Tso was 51 when it was over. I would think he surely must have been making his chicken by that time. It’s the old story. To the victor goes the spoils. Thank you, General Tso. Cheers for the chicken and the General.

But now I also have learned that there are naysayers about this, that it is very possible that General Tso never made any chicken, had nothing to do with this chicken and hadn’t even known about this chicken. Isn’t it also true that Betsy Ross did not make that first flag? These things are hard to believe.

In recent years, people have gone to Hunan Province to track down the legend of General Tso’s Chicken. I’m not kidding. They really did this. Check Wikipedia. They went to his hometown, Xiangyin, and they found that nobody eats General Tso’s chicken, or even heard of it there. They went to the capital of Hunan, Changsha, and it is the same story. They even interviewed descendants of General Tso—1885, which is when he died, is not that long ago, after all—and not one of his descendants said they ever heard of General Tso’s Chicken, much less that it has filtered down through the family as something the great General invented. And they certainly didn’t eat it. (When having it cooked up and served to them, they said it was too sweet.)

These investigators, however, continued along their way, eating General Tso’s chicken as they went. Eventually people came up with two other stories about this chicken that I personally take as an absolute affront to the memory of this great general.

One story—and a woman named Eileen Yin-Fei Lo has written a cookbook that explains this—suggests that the name comes not from General Zuo Zongtang, but to a phrase in Mandarin that means “ancestral meeting hall.” In that language, a phrase “zongtang” refers to such a place. Now, ancestral meeting hall it may be, but just guess who came in to cook it! Ha!

Then there is this other story. Those believing this one say that General Tso’s Chicken is not Chinese at all! They claim it was created in New York City in 1977 by a chef named Peng Jia. This is outrageous!

In this version, the proof is that there is no mention of General Tso’s chicken in China, that people in China still don’t eat General Tso’s chicken, and that what they really prefer is bland ancestral meeting hall chicken.

The first credible mention of General Tso’s chicken that they can find, anywhere, is in a New York Times article written in 1977 about this New York City restaurant chef Peng Jia.

Peng Jia was born and raised in mainland China. He apprenticed to a famous early 20th century chef in China named Cao Jingchen. Then he became the banquet chef for General Chiang Kai-shek, who along with his armies was fighting a war against the Communists in China after World War II. General Chiang Kai-shek was actually the leader of China going into World War II. He led the country when it fought Japan in the 1930s. He backpedalled his troops before the overwhelming forces of the Japanese in the late 1930s and early 1940s, when Japan was allied with Nazi Germany.

After the war ended and China emerged from Japanese clutches, Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist party continued its battle with the Communists, under Mao Zedong. They fought for four years, and the Red Army drove Chiang Kai-shek and his troops off the Chinese mainland to Taiwan (called Formosa by the West at the time). It was now a standoff. Chiang Kai-Shek owned the island. Mao owned Communist China. Not fair, if you ask me. But it remains so to this day, although Chiang and Mao died of old age afterwards and their followers took over.

No chicken was involved here. But then, in 1973, chef Peng Jia emigrated to New York City, and opened a restaurant in 1977.

And guess what? I find this hard to write. I write through my tears. He added sugar to a Chinese dish so non-Hunanese diners would like it, and named it after the famous 19th century General Tso.

I don’t believe this for a minute.

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