Just exactly who was General Tso, and what is it about his name Chinese takeout dish that makes it so popular?
Those burning questions provide the impetus behind “The Search for General Tso,” a culinary and cultural odyssey that ultimately has much more on its plate than that spicy-sweet-crispy chicken.
Embarking on a trek from New York City to Hunan province to shed some light on the real-life 19th century Qing dynasty military leader, director Ian Cheney incorporates terrific archival material and playful visuals to sift through all the legend and lore.
But like any well-researched piece worth its weight in MSG, the documentary uses food as an angle to something else: a look at immigration and at a melting pot stirred by prejudice and persecution, later seasoned with adaptation, innovation and acceptance.
As it turns out, unlike chop suey and fortune cookies, both of which originally were made expressly for American consumption, General Tso’s chicken has roots in Taiwan — a chef named Peng. The dish didn’t pop up on U.S. menus until the time of President Nixon’s momentous 1972 visit to China.
Incorporating a lively mix of historians, authors and, especially, restaurateurs, the documentary clocks in slightly over an hour, allowing ample time to grab a bite afterward.
“The Search for General Tso”
MPAA rating: None
Running time: 1 hour, 13 minutes.
Playing: Arena Cinema, Hollywood. Also on VOD.