Dear Straight Dope:
Who is the General Tso (or Tao, depending on which Chinese restaurant you're at) for which the tasty chicken entree which I've enjoyed for years is named? What did he do to deserve the honor? Is it because he was the first to figure out that hordes of Americans would gorge themselves silly on a dish that's basically chicken cooked in sugar and coated in sugar, or was it because he was just the biggest thug in the area at the time the dish was created? Since I'm e-mailing this request, I can't send a bribe, but if you help me out on this one, I'll give you as much General Tso's chicken as you can eat in one sitting as a delectable, severely fattening reward.
E.W., Washington, D.C.
Always happy to take on a question about food, E. W. While I won’t eat this particular dish, it’s always nice to know some useless trivia when I go out for Chinese food with friends.
According to The Harper Encyclopedia of Military Biography, Tso T’sung-t’ang was a Chinese statesman and general who lived from 1812 to 1885. He was born in Hunan to a gentry family, gained his doctoral degree around 1840, embarked on a successful career as a scholar-administrator, then was sent to join Tseng Kuo-fan’s Hunan army to fight against the Taiping rebels in 1853 (perhaps his doctoral degree was in "the art of war"). He became a general in 1860 (the entry actually says "by 1860," which could mean he was given the title while still in his crib, but I’ll assume it means it was right around 1860 when he was actually made a general) and was then appointed governor of the Chekiang province, which was largely in Taiping control. He was successful in driving the Taiping out of the province and restoring imperial rule, and went on to several other military successes, most of them carried out while he suffered from recurring bouts of malaria and dysentery. He was appointed a grand secretary of state in 1884, and died in Foochow on September 5, 1885.
What’s not in the encyclopedia entry is this anecdote I found on the web: "One of the most famous legends about him describes when he faced a battle hopelessly outnumbered, yet he managed to convince the opposing army’s leaders that an enormous number of reinforcements were about to arrive. Tso offered the rebels a choice between immediate surrender or inescapable slaughter; apparently he would have made a fortune at poker."
Which, naturally, leads to the question of what General Tso would have been eating during a poker game. Although I couldn’t find any reference to the good general teaching any classes at the Chinese Culinary Academy, and it’s doubtful that he ever tasted the dish as it’s usually prepared today, he probably would have liked it simply because it’s spicy: many Hunan dishes are spicy because many Hunan folks like spicy dishes. In China, having a tasty dish named after you is a high compliment, and it’s not surprising that one would be named after General Tso, as he is considered a hero.
Whether or not this dish was actually named after Tso in China, though, is questionable. Eric Hochman, owner of "The Definitive General Tso’s Chicken Page" (http://www.plate-o-shrimp.com/tso.htm), has this theory about the origin of the dish: "It was invented in the mid-1970’s, in NYC, by one Chef Peng. Chinese food in New York was different in the early ’70s; while there were a quite a few Chinese restaurants around, they were all Cantonese. Bland food, served in a decor straight out of the 1950’s. Around 1974, Hunan and Szechuan food were introduced to the city, and General Tso’s Chicken was an exemplar of the new style. Peng’s, on East 44th Street, was the first restaurant in NYC to serve it, and since the dish (and cuisine) were new, Chef Peng was able to make it a house specialty, in spite of its commonplace ingredients."
Whatever it’s origins, it’s popular today. Which is slightly surprising, since one of the things Tso is famous for is battling enemies and dysentery simultaneously. No reflection on his chicken, I’m sure.
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