Monday, January 04, 2010

Chicken General

Many of us who do crossword puzzles or eat Chinese food (or both, sometimes simultaneously) have long been curious about a certain General Tso. Was he a real person, much less a real general, or was he fictional, like Uncle Ben or Betty Crocker? Or was he more like a Chinese Colonel Sanders, not a real military Colonel? And why name a chicken dish after him? Was it sort of a damning with faint praise sort of thing?

Whilst I could very easily have looked him up of my own accord, hunan nature being what it is (ahem) I would rather--like the dish--have it delivered to me rather than go and pick it up.

Ergo, the answer finally did indeed present itself in, of all places, yesterday's New York Times Crossword Puzzle blog.

It probably doesn't surprise anyone that General Tso's chicken (like much of American Chinese cuisine, or much ethnic cuisine we get in this country) doesn't really exist in China itself. But:
General Tso’s chicken is named for Tso Tsung-t’ang (now usually transliterated as Zuo Zongtang), a formidable 19th-century general who is said to have enjoyed eating it. The Hunanese have a strong military tradition, and Tso is one of their best-known historical figures. But although many Chinese dishes are named after famous personages, there is no record of any dish named after Tso.

The real roots of the recipe lie in the chaotic aftermath of the Chinese civil war, when the leadership of the defeated Nationalist Party fled to the island of Taiwan. They took with them many talented people, including a number of notable chefs, and foremost among them was Peng Chang-kuei. Born in 1919 into a poverty-stricken household in the Hunanese capital, Changsha, Peng was the apprentice to Cao Jingchen, one of the most outstanding cooks of his generation. By the end of World War II, Peng was in charge of Nationalist government banquets, and when the party met its humiliating defeat at the hands of Mao Zedong’s Communists in 1949, he fled with them to Taiwan. There, he continued to cater for official functions, inventing many new dishes.
The article goes on to say that Peng invented the dish known as General Tso's chicken some time in the 1950s. In 1973, Peng moved to New York City and opened a restaurant near the United Nations. Hunan cuisine was virtually unknown in the States in the early 1970s, and Peng's restaurant became a favorite with U.N. officials--and with then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
“Kissinger visited us every time he was in New York,” Peng said, “and we became great friends. It was he who brought Hunanese food to public notice.”
The Chinese don't have much of a sweet tooth, and if you've ever had traditional Chinese desserts, they are not particularly sweet at all (but still very tasty). So needless to say, a main course would scarcely be sweet. As a result,
“The original General Tso’s chicken was Hunanese in taste and made without sugar,” he said. “But when I began cooking for non-Hunanese people in the United States, I altered the recipe.” (Though others have since laid claim to it.)
Peng eventaully moved back to Taiwan and General Tso's chicken became one of the staples of American Chinese food. One final irony, though:
General Tso’s chicken is now being adopted as a “traditional” dish by some influential chefs and food writers in Hunan.
Hmm...kind of like how Scotty "invented" transparent aluminum in Star Trek IV. (Yeah, like this post wasn't geeky enough to begin with!) There is also another irony in that the "traditional" Hunan dish is actually a product of exiled Nationalist Taiwan, which has to sting on some level.

Having further questions about Tso (is he a poultry excuse for a general?) I thought I would turn to our old friend Wikipedia. Tso (or, latterly, Zuo) lived from November 10, 1812 to September 5, 1885 (I shall have to mark November 10 on my calendar and celebrate each year with a delivery from the nearby Peking Chinese Restaurant, whose delivery menu describes the dish as "Finely chunks of chicken quickly fried until crispy, sauteed with exotic target, Hunan sauce." Not sure what "target Hunan sauce" is, but it is rather good.) But I digress...

Early in his career, Zuo "decided to abandon his plans to become a civil servant and returned to his home by the Xiang River in Hunan to farm silkworms, read and drink tea." Now there's an idea. I rather like that as a career move... There is no truth to the rumor that the original General Tso's chicken was made with silkworms.

When Zuo was 38 (in 1850), the Taiping Rebellion broke out, and he was hired as an advisor by the staff of the governor of Hunan. "In 1856, he was formally offered a position in the provincial government of Hunan."
In 1860, Zuo was given command of a force of 5,000 volunteers (later known as "Chu Army"), and by September of that year he drove the Taiping rebels out of Hunan and Guangxi provinces, into coastal Zhejiang.

Zuo captured the city of Shaoxing, and from there pushed south into Fujian and Guangdong provinces, where the revolt had first begun. In 1863, Zuo was appointed Governor of Zhejiang and an Undersecretary of War.

In August 1864, Zuo, together with Zeng Guofan, dethroned the Taiping teenage king, Hong Tianguifu, and brought an end to the rebellion. He was created Earl Kejing of the 1st Class for his part in suppressing the rebellion. He, Zeng Guofan and Li Hongzhang were called Zeng, Zuo, Li, the leaders in suppressing the rebellion.
In 1865, Zuo was appointed Viceroy and Governor-General of Fujian and Zhejiang. As Commissioner of Naval Industries, Zuo founded China's first modern shipyard and naval academy in Fuzhou the following year.
There is no truth to the rumor that he later won an important military campaign by firing chunks of crispy fried chicken at the enemy, although that Hunan sauce made a good target.
[I]n his seventies, Zuo was appointed to the Grand Council, the cabinet of the Qing Empire at the time, in 1880. Uneasy with bureaucratic politics, Zuo asked to be relieved of his duties and was appointed Viceroy of Liangjiang in 1881. In 1884, upon the outbreak of the Sino-French War, Zuo received his fourth and last commission as commander-in-chief and Imperial Commissioner of the Army and Inspector General overseeing coastal defense in Fujian. He died shortly after a truce was signed between the two nations, in Fuzhou (Foo-chow), 1885.
He was buried on a bed of rice....

A distinguished military figure to be sure, and yet, as we now know, was unlikely to have ever eaten the dish named for him. His loss, really.