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Who Invented General Tso's Chicken?

The owner of Yeoh Shanghai Restaurant, in New York City, shows her version of General Tso's chicken.

NEW YORK — Millions of Americans eat Chinese food on any given day. Since Pres. Richard Nixon's famous visit to Beijing in 1972, Chinese food has considerably become a staple of the American dining.

There are 50,000 Chinese restaurants across the United States, according to Chinese American Restaurant Association. That number is bigger than all the McDonald's, Burger Kings, Pizza Huts, Taco Bells and Wendy's combined.

But among the wide array of mouthwatering Chinese dishes to choose from, there is one that superbly stands out among Americans: General Tso's chicken — a dish of marinated chicken, diced, boneless and deep-fried, with brown sauce that has a mélange of flavors.

General Tso is carried in the 50,000 Chinese restaurants across the country. The dish, which can be crowned as the most popular ethnic dish, has been modified in countless ways, yet that unique, distinctive taste and flavor — sweet, tangy and salty — remains a favorite to the American palate.

But who invented General Tso’s chicken? Who is General Tso? Is he a real person? Is he Chinese or American? Did he like chicken so much that Chinese-American restaurateurs named the dish after him?

Ian Cheney’s documentary, The Search for General Tso, which premiered at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival, revealed most of the answers, tracing the origins of this beloved Chinese dish. Cheney (King Corn, The City Dark) traveled from Shanghai to New York to the American Midwest and beyond to unravel the mystery of General Tso’s chicken.

Told in a Sherlock Holmes’ investigative yet richly historic style, the Search for General Tso takes the viewers to the highways and byways of America and all the way to the American dining table. Along the way, explorers, colonials, historians, immigrants, businessmen and women, food workers and consumers are intricately woven together in narratives spanning generations.

The film explains that the real General Tso was a 19th—century general in the Qing Dynasty. Born in the Hunan Province, he dismantled the Taiping Rebellion, the civil war that took place in China between 1850 and 1864.

However, General Tso did not invent the chicken dish.

In fact, according to the documentary, General Tso himself could not have eaten the dish because it is neither found in Changsa, the capital of Hunan, nor in Xiangyin, the native town of General Tso.

And when some of the descendants of General Tso, who are still living in Xiangyin up to this day, were interviewed, they said they have never heard of General Tso's chicken. Many customers of restaurants around Shanghai, much to their chagrin, were also oblivious of its existence.

According to Jennifer 8. Lee, producer of the film, the dish can be traced back to the California Gold Rush in 1849, when there was an influx of Chinese immigrants who built the American railways. While mainstream America was intrigued by Chinese food, they were also scared by it, as Americans were told that Chinese people were eating rats.

In 1882, Pres. Chester A. Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act into law, banning Chinese laborers from coming to the United States. This forced many Chinese laborers to move out of California and migrated to east and south. They also embarked on establishing their own businesses to survive — and this was the start of Chinese restaurants popping up in different parts of the country.

On the Upper West Side of Manhattan, in 1972, Chinese-American restaurateur Michael Tong established Shun Lee Palace. To customize the menu to his American customers, Tong introduced General Tso’s chicken. The dish was a big success, receiving a four-star rating from The New York Times.

Still, many restaurant owners in America today have multiple versions of how the dish was invented and who invented it. But one thing is undisputed: the dish has resulted in billions of dollars in revenue since it was first introduced.

Author's note: A version of this article first appeared in New America Media on April 18, 2014.

Photo credit: Tribeca Film Festival