In 2007 the New York Times called General Tso’s chicken the most famous Hunanese dish in the world. But the sweet-spicy deep-fried recipe didn’t originate with chefs in China’s Hunan Province, “who apparently had never heard of it until the opening of China to the West in recent decades.” So say Jerry Adler and Andrew Lawler, whose comprehensive “How the Chicken Conquered the World” appears in the May issue of Smithsonian Magazine. Here’s their General Tso story:
The man generally credited with the idea of putting deep-fried chicken pieces in a hot chili sauce was the Hunan-born chef Peng Chang-kuei, who fled to Taiwan after the Communist revolution in 1949. He named the dish for a 19th-century military commander who led the suppression of the Taiping Rebellion, a largely forgotten conflict that claimed upwards of 20 million lives. Peng moved to New York in 1973 to open a restaurant that became a favorite of diplomats and began cooking his signature dish. Over the years it has evolved in response to American tastes to become sweeter, and in a kind of reverse cultural migration has now been adopted as a “traditional” dish by chefs and food writers in Hunan.
You won’t find General Tso’s chicken at the 3,000 KFC outlets in China, write Adler and Lawler. The chain—which is more profitable in China than in the United States—“has thrived by offering the Chinese customers food they were already familiar with, including (depending on the region) noodles, rice and dumplings, along with chicken wraps, chicken patties and chicken wings, which are so popular … that the company periodically has to deny rumors it has a farm somewhere that raises six-winged chickens.”