General Tso's chicken is one of the most popular Chinese-American dishes in existence. Chunks of fried chicken tossed in a sweet, sticky, spicy, and tangy sauce, the dish is found on the menu at just about every neighborhood Chinese restaurant, and even though it's synonymous with Chinese cuisine in much of the world, you'd be hard-pressed to actually find it on a menu in China. We set out to answer a question that's been bugging us for ages: Who was General Tso, and why is a Chinese-American chicken dish named after him?
According to food writer Fuscia Dunlop, the dish was invented by a chef named Peng Chang-kuei back in the 1950s. Peng was a banquet chef for the Chinese Nationalists, and after their defeat by Mao Zedong's Communists in 1949, he fled to Taiwan with them. It was here in Taiwan that he invented the dish, where it originally hewed closely to traditional Hunanese spicy, salty, and sour flavors, and wasn’t sweet at all. Peng went on to open a restaurant in Taipei, where the dish was a hit, and in 1973 he moved to New York to open one of the first Hunanese restaurants in America, Peng's, on 44th Street. It was close to the United Nations headquarters, and Henry Kissinger, one of his regular customers, became a regular and helped make the restaurant a success.
So how did this sour and spicy dish eventually transform into the sweet, crispy dish we know today? Simple: Peng used his culinary know-how to transform the dish into one that would appeal more to American palates of the time. It became so popular that chefs all around the city, then the country, then the world began to emulate it.
But what about General Tso? Who was this mysterious figure, and how did he factor into the dish? It turns out that when Peng had to name the dish, the first name that popped into his head was that of a legendary Hunanese general named Tso Zongtang, who quashed multiple rebellions in nineteenth-century China and was from the same town as Peng, who passed away in 2016 at age 98. If you're suddenly in the mood for a platter of General Tso's chicken, you can probably find one at the best Chinese restaurant in your state.