If you’ve ever eaten at a Chinese restaurant—and I’m going to assume you have—you’ve probably wondered about General Tso’s chicken. Was the general a real guy? Did he invent the dish of fried chicken in chili-garlic sauce, or did he just love to eat it? And did he have anything to do with Colonel Sanders?
These questions have been floating around the back of my mind for years, but out of laziness, I’ve never tried to dig up answers. Luckily, filmmaker Ian Cheney (King Corn, The City Dark) has answered just about every question you could think of about the general—and about the history of Chinese food in America—in the fascinating new documentary The Search for General Tso, which got a limited theatrical release last month and is currently streaming on Amazon. (The answers to the questions above: Yes, neither, and no. It’s much more complicated than all that.)
The film gets the basics out of the way quickly: Zuo Zongtang—whose name is often transliterated on menus as Tso, Tsau, Gao, or Gau—was a 19th-century Hunanese general best known for helping to quash the Taiping peasant rebellion. Cheney visits Hunan province, where Gen. Tso is still lionized with public memorials, a museum, a school, and a hotel named after him—but Cheney’s guide, one of the general’s descendants, doesn’t know the origins of the eponymous dish.
To understand those origins, Cheney traces the history of Chinese food in America, which is in many ways a microcosm of the history of Chinese people in America. Due to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers, Chinese newcomers had to start their own businesses, and many turned to restaurants. Naturally, Chinese restaurateurs tailored their offerings to local palates, and The Search for General Tso pays tribute to the resulting hybrid cuisine’s greatest hits: chop suey, fortune cookies, and, of course, the ubiquitous military chicken. Cheney eventually reveals through talking-head interviews with historians, journalists, and chefs (and through surprisingly nonannoying animations of historical figures) that the dish made its American debut in New York City in 1972, the same year that Nixon thawed Sino-American relations with his visit to China.
However, that’s not the end of the story—the twist is that General Tso’s chicken was originally invented more than a decade earlier, and its invention took place neither in America nor in mainland China. I don’t want to spoil too much else, in part because I think this movie is worth your time—it’s only a little more than an hour long. Suffice it to say, if you watch it, you will learn more about General Tso’s chicken than you ever thought you would, and you will become acquainted with the man who legitimately invented the dish, along with a few of the countless imitators who have made General Tso’s chicken a Chinese–American classic.
Best of all, you will understand the context in which General Tso’s chicken caught on, which isn’t always pretty. You can’t talk about Chinese–American food without talking about the United States’ long history of institutionalized racism, and Cheney doesn’t try to—but he doesn’t dwell on it, either. The Search for General Tso is everything a food documentary should be: entertaining, educational, and ultimately pretty appetizing.