To Chinese, General Tso Was No Chicken (Dish)
Zuo Kuanxun wrinkles his face in skepticism, and you can hardly blame him. A foreign visitor has appeared without warning to inform him that his great-great-great grandfather -- battlefield hero and crusher of rebellions against the imperial Qing court -- is renowned on restaurant menus across the sea.
Gen. Zuo Zongtang, a hometown legend in his south-central province of China, was the fiercest of 19th century warriors. Yet today, most of America associates the late military strategist with a chicken. And a tasty one at that.
Odds are you know him as General Tso, General Chao, General Zhou, even General Ching -- namesake of the succulent, sweet-spicy chunks of dark-meat chicken featured in most every Chinese restaurant in the United States but is almost unknown in China itself.
General Tso/Zuo himself, however, is well known -- decidedly real and born in 1812 in this tiny valley in Hunan province. And a bit of detective work turns up the fact that, indeed, there is an obscure Hunan chicken recipe that bears his name -- although no one can say quite how that happened.
“We have chickens here. We make chicken. But it’s nothing special,” says Zuo, sitting in the shade of his open-front house a few yards from the general’s old homestead. As he speaks, a hen wanders in. “You say millions of Americans are familiar with our ancestor?”
His son, Zuo Jingyou, offers this: “It’s been forgotten here. We Zuos have all heard stories about it. But did it come from him? We don’t know.”
Chinese food in the United States is full of such anomalies. Dishes that Americans consider takeout-joint stalwarts leave mainland Chinese scratching their heads. Chop suey? Describe it to anyone across the land and you get blank looks. Lake Tungting shrimp? There is a Lake Tungting -- or Dongting, as they spell it -- here in Hunan, and it does have big shrimp, but locals say it’s not a recipe per se.
Duck sauce? It’s brown and made with plums -- nothing like that translucent orange stuff that’s apparently neither for, nor made of, duck. In the Chinese capital, the sauce is served with julienned scallions and cucumber to be placed on wrap-up pancakes over succulent Beijing duck.
Don’t even ask about fortune cookies. Although some Chinese vaguely remember a grandparent putting a secret message in a holiday cake, the notion of finding an aphorism like “Yesterday’s enemy is tomorrow’s ally” tucked inside one’s dessert is utterly alien here.
“A Confucian saying inside a cookie? I’ve never heard of it, but it doesn’t sound like a bad idea,” says Chen Huanshun, a cooking teacher at the Beijing Economic and Trade Senior Technical School. “But putting a piece of paper inside a baked good doesn’t sound too sanitary.”
Why the differences? Chinese food that first made an impression on Americans came from the south, because the earliest immigrants to the United States were Cantonese, from around Guangzhou near Hong Kong. Their less spicy cuisine became the standard for a generation of chow mein houses.
Among Cantonese contributions: chow mein (fried noodles), moo goo gai pan (mushrooms and chicken slices) and the universally loved wonton (literally, “swallowing clouds”).
In the 1970s and 1980s, a new wave of immigrants with roots in Hunan and Sichuan (think “Szechwan”) provinces -- both home to famous cuisines noted for fragrant, spicy flavorings -- opened restaurants in U.S. cities. But in case American palates weren’t ready for such intricate fare, traditional recipes were modified to fit the market.
That happened with kungpao chicken, a fiery Sichuan dish that was tamed -- some would say dumbed down -- for an American audience.
“Every single family in Sichuan probably knows how to make it,” says Yang Jianping, a taxi driver in Chengdu, the province’s capital city.
“I’ll tell you right now: I’ve never been to America, but I know that Sichuan food there is nothing like here. You have your tastes, we have ours,” he says. “But I would probably take a bite of American kungpao chicken and spit it out.”
One dish that emerged from the pack was General Tso’s chicken. Although the recipe remains quite malleable -- in some American restaurants, the chicken is sweet and unbreaded, in others spicy or batter-fried -- it was a hit and remains on virtually every Chinese American restaurant’s list of “chef’s specials.”
This is somewhat bewildering to folks in the place that the general called home.
“You’re telling me there’s a chicken dish named in his memory?” says Geng Ermao, proprietress of a family-style restaurant in Changsha, the provincial capital of Hunan. Her face wrinkles. “You say Americans who eat Chinese food are familiar with his name? I don’t know of it, and you’d think I’d know.”
Head north from Changsha, drive for about an hour and you’ll reach Wenjialong, a verdant valley of tucked-away farms and small houses. Here, living quiet lives, are the remaining descendants of the general, who died in 1885.
Zuo Rensi, another great-great-great grandson, opens the decaying gate of his ancestor’s courtyard home and leads visitors quietly into what was once the kitchen. He speaks quietly of the dish known here as “Zuo gongji” or “Zuo’s rooster.”
“I don’t know if he created the dish or it was made for him,” Zuo says. “But we all know about it. No one knows how to make it anymore though.”
Aside from his formidable military career -- including campaigns to crush the Taiping Rebellion and an uprising in the predominantly Muslim western region of Xinjiang -- Zuo was known for his belief that China needed to modernize to survive. His method: using tried-and-true Western innovations to improve upon Chinese traditions.
This is instructive when considering the global journey of General Tso’s chicken. In a recent random sampling of more than a dozen restaurants in Hunan province, only one -- near Changsha’s main train station -- offered Zuo’s rooster on the menu.
What arrived was a melancholy mix of vegetables, shallots and greasy, scrawny pieces of chicken studded with perilous slivers of bone -- a far cry from the juicy, boneless poultry chunks familiar to Americans.
“Chinese are going all over the world, and they’re taking their recipes with them. It can only get better and more professional,” says Chen, the cooking-school instructor.
Usually, though, the Chinese version of Chinese food is far tastier than its American imitation. Not this time. And there’s not a Zuo in town who can explain why.
“All the Zuos who could leave here left. Maybe they took it with them,” says Zuo Jingyou, who doubts that he will ever make it to the United States to sample the descendant of his ancestor’s eponymous meal. “I don’t know the story of the dish. I really wish I did.”