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The History of General Tso's Chicken

General Tso’s Chicken: Is it Really Chinese?

General Tso’s Chicken is one of the most popular dishes at Chinese restaurants all across the United States. It’s made with battered chicken that is then fried, mixed with some dried chili peppers and tossed in a sweet and spicy sauce.

But is it really Chinese? Here is the history of General Tso’s Chicken.

Can You Find General Tso's Chicken in China?

Despite being found in Chinese restaurants throughout the U.S., you likely won’t find General Tso’s Chicken in China.

Why? Because General Tso’s chicken as we know it today, was likely first served at Peng’s Restaurant in New York City, on East 44th Street in Manhattan. Thus, it can be considered more of a Chinese-American dish.

Chef Peng Chang-kuei was a chef in the Hunan province in China but fled to Taiwan after the Chinese Civil War. He continued working as a chef and it’s here that he created a dish with chunks of fried chicken for a U.S. military General. In 2007, he gave an interview for the NY Times where he remembered this original dish as typically Hunanese in flavor – “heavy, sour, hot, and salty.”

Peng continues to work as a chef in Taiwan until 1973 when he moved to New York City and opened Peng’s Restaurant, focusing on Hunan style cuisine. It’s here that he tweaked his earlier dish to make it sweeter for the American palate and named it General Tso’s Chicken. 

Who was General Tso?

Zuo Zongtang, sometimes known as General Tso, was a Chinese statesman and military leader of the late Qing dynasty.

He was born in 1812 in the province of Hunan. When the Taiping Rebellion broke out in 1850 (a war between the Manchu-led Qing dynasty and the Han rebels) he was given a position in the Hunan government. In 1860 he was given command of 5,000 troops that forced the rebels out of Hunan. Four years later he helped dethrone the rebel leader and end the uprising.

This success led to him becoming a Governor and high-ranking military commander. He led forces to squash later uprisings and to end Russian occupation along the border. Although there was no connection to the dish invented nearly a century later, Chef Peng named his dish in honor of this General.

Shun Lee Palace Claim

Another New York City restaurant also claims to have served the first General Tso’s chicken. The owner of Shun Lee Palace on East 55th Street asserts that his partner & Executive Chef T.T. Wang is the one who first created this dish, also in 1973. This claim seems to be based on the premise that Wang had visited Chef Peng’s restaurant in Taipei and brought back some recipes inspired by that menu. But regardless of who served it first in New York, T.T. Wang is certainly credited with elevating Chinese Cuisine in the area and introducing a lot of people to this dish.

General Tso's Recipes

There are many recipes for this dish online. Cubed chicken is breaded and fried then mixed with a sauce made from soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, sugar, cornstarch, and dried red chili peppers. It is typically served with broccoli and goes great over rice.

Variations can be found under several different names, such as: General Tsao’s, General Tao’s, Governor Tso’s, General Cho’s, General Tang’s, or simply General’s Chicken.

Here are a couple recipes. The first website is great because Lau also links to a video on his YouTube page where his father takes you through the cooking process and then Lau discusses that even though General Tso’s chicken is rarely found in China, he still considers it authentic. This is because creating dishes that appealed to a Non-Chinese clientele allowed them to overcome discrimination and adapt to their new home in the U.S.



For More Information

A documentary called “The Search for General Tso” premiered at the Tribeca film festival in 2014. It explores much of what I have discussed above, including the creation of this dish and a history on Chinese immigration to the United States. It can be found on Amazon here. Read more about it on Rotten Tomatoes or Wikipedia

Most of the information in this post came from these sources: