With the recent passing of chef Peng Chang-kuei, the inventor of General Tso’s chicken, at the age of 98, we got to thinking about a dish that we hadn’t previously given much consideration to. Who exactly was General Tso, and why was this sweet-and-spicy fried chicken dish named after him?
According to an interview with Peng, he invented the dish back in 1955 while cooking for Admiral Arthur W. Radford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during the Taiwan Strait Crisis. The dish was a hit, but it helmed 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 he served the dish, and Chinese chefs who were looking to open the New York’s first Hunanese restaurants adapted the recipe for American palates in the early 1970s. The dish was a bit hit at those restaurants, Uncle Tai’s Hunan Yuan and Hunam, and played a role in earning the restaurants four stars by The New York Times, its highest rating. The dish especially came into its own at Hunam, where chef Tsung Ting Wang gave it a Szechuan twist, ratcheting up the crispiness and sweetness of the dish. When Peng himself finally opened a New York restaurant a couple years later, he added his original version of the dish to the menu, and it was unrecognizable.
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, which he invented on the fly, the first name that popped into his head was that of a Hunanese general named Zuo Zongtang, who quashed multiple rebellions in nineteenth-century China and was from the same town as Peng.