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A Filmmaker Documents His Search for General Tso

In 2008, New York Times reporter Jennifer 8. Lee delivered what would become one of the most-viewed TED Talks, "The Hunt for General Tso." Seven years and 838,706 servings of General Tso's chicken later, she and filmmaker Ian Cheney are set to release a globe-trotting documentary film on the topic, "The Search for General Tso." They trace the origins of the dish (yes, there was really a General Tso) and, through it, tell a story of Chinese and Chinese American identity, and the interplay between food and culture at large. Mr. Cheney tells us all the saucy details.

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general tso posterIan Cheney:It turns out that a move about General Tso’s chicken is a movie about a lot of things. It’s a movie about the Chinese American experience. It’s a movie about how food shapes culture and how culture shapes food. And also how food provided an entry point for Chinese Americans in a culture that was really not ready to accept them as part of America.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah. We had learned that the genesis of the Chinese American restaurant is actually rooted in discrimination. Restaurants and laundry services were some of the only jobs early Chinese American immigrants were legally allowed to do.

Ian Cheney: Yeah. In the wake of the Gold Rush and the building of the railroads, there was the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. It was a singular event, really, in American immigration history. A people were basically told they could not come to the States. In the midst of this, the Chinese who were in the States found themselves shut out of many professions. And the openings they found were in laundry and in serving food. That paved the way for food being one of the ways in which Chinese immigrants find their ways into communities all across the country. Dishes like chop suey emerged to meet American palettes. Chop suey really isn’t something you find much in China, similar to General Tso’s chicken. So chop suey was kind of the first, kind of the proto General Tso’s chicken, in a way.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Chop suey, just kind of minced meat, and flavorless vegetables there, cabbage and other things. We find out that’s not a real Chinese dish. And neither is General Tso’s exactly. But, there is an actual Chinese general named General Tso.

Ian Cheney: There is a General Tso. And actually when we first lit upon the idea of making a film about General Tso, we were realizing this was, it was pre-smartphone so I was eating in a small Chinese restaurant in Ohio with my best friend, and we were eating General Tso’s chicken. I thought, “Who the heck was General Tso?” And I suppose if we’d had a smart phone at the time, we would have just solved the mystery and been done with it and never made this film.

Brendan Francis Newnam: All the documentaries ruined by smart phone.

Ian Cheney: Exactly, yeah. All of our curiosities appeased instantly by smartphones. But even knowing who General Tso was, in a Wikipedia sense, there was still a larger story we could tell. So we found our way to General Tso’s hometown, where they were just finishing the celebration of the, I guess it must have been the 200th anniversary of his birth. And we were shown General Tso’s hotel where we tasted General Tso’s liquor. And a tour of the General Tso’s museum, and even General Tso’s home.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So what was his role in Chinese history?

Ian Cheney: I kind of think of him as like the General Sherman of China. I mean it’s fairly contemporary with General Sherman. Also was brought on to quell a rebellion. In this case, General Tso was charged with putting down the Taiping Rebellion which was led by this guy who claimed to be the younger brother of Jesus Christ. So the general was, he was a fearsome dude. Unclear how much chicken he ate. And or whether we what we know is General Tso’s chicken would have been anything that he possibly could have eaten.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So General Tso is not related to the famous chicken dish. But we do find out that another man from Hunan Province is. And I was surprised to learn that there is actually a guy who invented the dish. I thought it just kind of evolved out of time. Tell me about him?

Ian Cheney: Seemingly, yeah. All roads seem to point to Taipei, to this man, Chef Peng, who, longing for his home province of Hunan, and charged with creating some new dishes for a special banquet in the 50s, created this dish. Which, once it found its way to the States in the hands of other chefs, adapted and became what we now know is General Tso’s chicken. But, tasting the original version, which they still make in Taipei, in Chef Peng’s restaurant, it was awesome. It was certainly not sweet. There was much less breading. It was almost a little sour. Certainly spicier. Kind of a deeper soy flavor. More ginger. My mouth waters as I remember it, frankly.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well your mouth waters as you remember but Ian, I have to ask, can you even look at General Tso’s chicken at this point? You traveled the world. You must have tasted this dish a zillion times. Is that still one of your moves when you go to a Chinese restaurant?

Ian Cheney: I do caution any future documentary film makers out there who are focusing in on one particular dish that they really love, just go forth in moderation. I think my, if you were to graph my General Tso’s chicken consumption it would probably be something of a sin curve where we would go through passionate bouts of eating every day and then max out and be off.

Brendan Francis Newnam: There goes my milkshake movie idea.

Ian Cheney: Yeah, exactly.