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    You are in: Home / Community Forums / Asian Cooking / Who was General Tso and why do we eat his chicken?
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    Who was General Tso and why do we eat his chicken?

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    Pot Scrubber
    Sun Oct 01, 2006 3:30 pm Groupie
    Who was he?

    General Tso Tsungtang, or as his name is spelled in modern Pinyin, Zuo Zongtang, was born on Nov. 10, 1812, and died on Sept. 5, 1885. He was a frighteningly gifted military leader during the waning of the Qing dynasty, a figure perhaps the Chinese equivalent of the American Civil War commander William Tecumseh Sherman. He served with brilliant distinction during China's greatest civil war, the 14-year-long Taiping Rebellion, which claimed millions of lives.

    Tso was utterly ruthless. He smashed the Taiping rebels in four provinces, put down an unrelated revolt called the Nian Rebellion, then marched west and reconquered Chinese Turkestan from Muslim rebels.

    Arthur W. Hummel devotes five double-columned pages to the general in the monumental 1944 "Eminent Chinese of the Ch'ing Period (1644-1912)" published by the Library of Congress.

    Tso emerges from several sources as a self-made man, born in Hunan province, a hilly hot-tempered heartland, whose cuisine rivals that of Sichuan for sheer firepower. (While Sichuan food is hot right up front, in the mouth, in your face; Hunanese cuisine tends to build up inside you, like a slow charcoal fire, until you feel as though your belly is filled with burning coals.)

    As a young man Tso flunked the official court exams three times, a terrible disgrace. He returned home, married and devoted himself to practical studies, like agriculture and geography. He took up silkworm farming and tea farming and chose a gentle sobriquet, calling himself "The Husbandman of the River Hsiang." Like Sherman, stuck teaching at a military academy in Louisiana on the eve of the Civil War, he seemed washed up.

    He was 38 when the Taiping Rebellion broke out in 1850. For the rest of his life, Tso would wield the sword, becoming one of the most remarkably successful military commanders in Chinese history.

    The Taiping Rebellion -- a movement that in part advocated Christian doctrine -- nearly toppled the Qing dynasty. It was founded by Hong Xiuquan, a Chinese mystic who believed he was the younger brother of Jesus. The whole astonishing episode has been described admirably by Yale scholar Jonathan Spence in his "God's Chinese Son." (Norton, 1996).

    Tso made war, and war made Tso. He began his military career as an adjutant and secretary for the governor of Hunan province. He raised a force of 5,000 volunteers and took the field in September 1860, driving the Taiping rebels out of Hunan and Guangxi provinces, into coastal Zhejiang. There he captured the big cities of Shaoxing, still famous for its sherrylike rice wine. From there he pushed south into Fujian and Guangdong provinces, where the revolt had first begun and spread, and had crushed the Taipings by the time the rebellion ended in 1864.

    The Taiping Rebellion was the greatest upheaval in 19th century China. It caused massive displacements and shifts in population. Hundreds of thousands of people fled or emigrated, many to America, where they worked building the transcontinental railroad, which was completed in 1869.

    It would be possible to leave the story here and say that General Tso's Chicken simply honors a great personality, just as Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, is honored in Beef Wellington; Pavel Stroganoff, a 19th-century Russian diplomat, in Beef Stroganoff; Count Charles de Nesselrode (another 19th-century Russian diplomat) in Nesselrode Pudding,; or Australian opera singer Nellie Melba in the dessert, Peach Melba. Indeed some believe it quite likely that the dish was whipped up for the general after some signal victory, just as Chicken Marengo was whipped up for Napoleon after he defeated the Austrians at Marengo on June 14, 1800.

    Still, the recipe is not particularly original -- the ingredients are used in many stir-fry Chinese dishes -- and the dark meat chicken argues for a humbler origin. It's a poor man's dish, not a feast for a field marshal.

    Is it possible that, struggling to carve out a new life in America under backbreaking adversities, and having heard of the sword skills of the remorseless General Tso (who had the top leaders of the Nian Rebellion executed with the proverbial "death of 10,000 cuts"), the overseas exiles indulged in some gallows-humor about their old enemy? That the chopped-up chicken dish may have gotten its name from the sliced and diced victims of Tso's grim reprisals?

    This might conceivably explain why General Tso's Chicken is very much an overseas Chinese dish, filtering the hot, peppery taste of Hunan cuisine, through the sweetening process of Cantonese cooking. Most of the immigrants to America came from coastal regions: Shanghai and Canton.

    Tso Much For That

    The details of Tso's life are easy to document. But how the chicken got named for him is another matter. In "Chinese Kitchen" (Morrow, 1999), author Eileen Yin-Fei Lo says that dish is a Hunan classic called "chung ton gai," or "ancestor meeting place chicken."

    But to others, General Tso's chicken recipe may be no more ancient than 1972, and may have more in common with Manhattan than with mainland China. On "The Definitive General Tso's Chicken Page" New Yorker Eric Hochman theorizes "It was invented in the mid-1970s, in NYC, by one Chef Peng.

    "Around 1974, Hunan and Szechuan food were introduced to the city, and General Tso's Chicken was an exemplar of the new style. Peng's, on East 44th Street, was the first restaurant in NYC to serve it, and since the dish (and cuisine) were new, Chef Peng was able to make it a House Specialty, in spite of its commonplace ingredients."

    My own research led me to the same city, but a different Manhattan restaurateur, who claims the dish is the brilliant invention of his former partner, a gifted Chinese immigrant chef named T.T. Wang.

    "He went into business with me in 1972," said Michael Tong, owner of New York's Shun Lee Palaces, East (155 E. 55th St.) and West (43 W. 65th St.). "We opened the first Hunanese restaurant in the whole country, and the four dishes we offered you will see on the menu of practically every Hunanese restaurant in America today. They all copied from us.

    "First, Lake Tung Ting shrimp. Lake Tung Ting in northern Hunan province is very famous for its shrimp.

    "Second, crispy sea bass. We roll them in cornstarch and we fry them crispy. Then we shower them with the sauce. A lot of restaurants will use catfish, but they don't know how to cook them in the sauce, so they put the sauce on the side. Sometimes they just give you plain soy sauce. We know how to cook them in the sauce.

    "Third, orange crispy beef. This is very, very popular with us. Any Hunan or Sichuan restaurant, if you call them and ask for orange crispy beef, they will know what you are talking about. We invented it.

    "Fourth, General Tso's chicken, sometimes called General Tsung's chicken or General Tsao's chicken."

    If Tong's tale is true, General Tso never ate the dish named after him. The great warrior, the prop of the Qing dynasty, the subduer of rebels and uprisings who carved his name into Chinese history at the point of a sword, had to wait more than 100 years for an inventive expatriate chef to award him his American triumph and make his name famous in the West.

    General Tso, most likely, was a man ahead of his dish.

    Last edited by Pot Scrubber on Thu Feb 01, 2007 10:54 am, edited 1 time in total
    Wed Oct 04, 2006 8:03 pm Groupie
    Brilliant, Pot Scrubber! The General famed through a chicken dish. I wonder if he'd approve.
    Pot Scrubber
    Wed Oct 04, 2006 8:25 pm Groupie
    Ingy wrote:
    Brilliant, Pot Scrubber! The General famed through a chicken dish. I wonder if he'd approve.

    icon_smile.gif I wish I could take the credit for that article but I just ran across it while trying to locate a recipe for Lake Ting Tung Shrimp. (See the thread posted in this forum) But I thought it was very cool and I wanted to share it. icon_cool.gif

    Would General Tso approve? Probably not and boy am I glad he has long been dead in case he didn't. He was a mean motorscooter and I wouldn't want to be on his crap list. "Death by a thousand cuts?" No thanks. I'll pass. Ouch.
    Fri Oct 06, 2006 11:24 am Groupie
    That's an awesome post, Potsie! Great job! I've been honestly wondering about how that name came about for a long time... icon_eek.gif Weird.....Have you been reading my mind? icon_confused.gif icon_biggrin.gif
    Pot Scrubber
    Fri Oct 06, 2006 1:07 pm Groupie
    Stacky5LRC wrote:
    That's an awesome post, Potsie! Great job! I've been honestly wondering about how that name came about for a long time... icon_eek.gif Weird.....Have you been reading my mind? icon_confused.gif icon_biggrin.gif

    Hi Stacy welcome to our forum! wave.gif I haven't seen you in a while. "Great minds think alike!"
    Wed Oct 11, 2006 9:44 pm Groupie
    Pot Scrubber wrote:
    Stacky5LRC wrote:
    That's an awesome post, Potsie! Great job! I've been honestly wondering about how that name came about for a long time... icon_eek.gif Weird.....Have you been reading my mind? icon_confused.gif icon_biggrin.gif

    Hi Stacy welcome to our forum! wave.gif I haven't seen you in a while. "Great minds think alike!"

    Hi Sweet Pea! wave.gif I will probably be in here more often, because my kids and I seem to be on this new "kick" about Asian and Thai cuisine.....Lots-o-questions are brewing in my little household........I'll be posting more later, if that's OK.....Meantime, it sure is good to see you, Friend! icon_smile.gif
    Mama's Kitchen (Hope)
    Wed Oct 25, 2006 3:22 pm Groupie
    FAB info Pots! I LOVE it!


    I LOVE Tso's Chicken whether the man approves or not! It is some GOOD stuff!

    I have even learned how to make it myself since I am hours away from ANY good, decent Chinese restaurant!

    Mama's General Tso's Chicken

    and it is pretty darn good- if I do say so myself!
    Thu Oct 26, 2006 10:32 am Groupie
    I really enjoyed this post!
    Thu Oct 26, 2006 12:19 pm Groupie
    WOW!!! I really LOVED reading that!!!!!!!!Thanks for posting it!!!!!!!!!!!! icon_biggrin.gif icon_biggrin.gif icon_biggrin.gif icon_biggrin.gif
    Guess I better try some General Tso's chicken, eh?! icon_lol.gif Sure sounds good!!!!!!!!!! icon_biggrin.gif icon_biggrin.gif
    I've really been getting into Asian cooking, too!!! I had never tried it, except for an easy peasy sweet-n-sour chicken recipe, because I had the (wrong) notion that it was difficult to make. And shied away from purchasing things like sesame oil because of the price. Well, my new hubby introduced me to sesame oil, and not only did I LOVE it, but found out it really goes FAR. So, it's not really expensive at all. I also found out how truely easy Asian cooking really is. A lot of it, to me anyways, is simply their "comfort food". Just different ingredients! icon_biggrin.gif
    Anyways, got a lil' long-winded there!!! icon_lol.gif Thanks for posting the article!! icon_biggrin.gif
    Fri Nov 10, 2006 9:52 am Groupie
    That article is very cool and informative. I would love to know how to make that crispy hunan beef, one of my faves. I have shied away from Asian Cuisine because I don't know how to make it taste authentic. Maybe this forum will help. Thanks Potsie icon_biggrin.gif
    Sun Nov 19, 2006 4:40 am Groupie
    This is really fascinating information - and it poses an interesting question that is eternal in the West - what is "authentic" and what not in the Chinese food we eat all over the world - a question which is being answered more and more by Chinese cookery books. But there are still major areas which remain vague and undefined - a book which makes this clear is the wonderful Chinese Gastronomy written by the wife and daughter of the American-Chinese philosopher Lin Yutang.

    In this book an attempt is made - in a most entertaining way - to explain why Chinese people cook as they do, contrasting street food and "poor" food with the rich man's table, touching on regional differences, and providing really interesting recipes along the way.
    Greetings from Africa
    Sun Dec 24, 2006 4:18 pm
    Experienced "Head Chef" Poster
    And after the 1,000th cut came - the soy sauce!
    Pot Scrubber
    Fri Apr 27, 2012 6:17 pm Groupie
    I found this old post of mine and thought some of our newer Asia peeps might enjoy the history lesson.
    Tue May 15, 2012 2:55 pm
    Regular "Line Cook" Poster
    Yes! Thank you! I LOVE food history! Now, can you tell me how to make Hunan Shrimps in Garlic Sauce. It seems like it would be sooooo easy: Shrimp, water chestnuts (or, as I saw them labeled on a Chinese buffet recently, "waterchest nuts"), wood ear mushrooms, maybe a few fresh bamboo shoots, in a shoyu-laced brown gravy with some heat (whole, dried red peppers?), maybe a little rice vinegar, sesame oil. This was a dish served in the 1970s at Dallas' first Hunan restaurant (called Hunan, go figure). I have searched and searched and ordered the dish by that title in every Chinese restaurant in North Texas (HUGE Asian community), read every online recipe, and tried every way I can think of to replicate it with no luck. I'm pretty skilled at Asian cooking and honestly can't understand why something so seemingly uncomplicated is so hard to duplicate. What am I missing?? Your help would be greatly appreciated!
    Pot Scrubber
    Wed May 16, 2012 7:39 pm Groupie
    Hi jilkat25! wave.gif

    I feel your pain. Trying to recreate a favorite dish from a particular restaurant can be very frustrating. I fell in love with the Kung Pao shrimp at a restaurant in Austin when I loved there in the 80s. I moved away to Phoenix and then to Dallas and have tried dozens of other restaurant versions over the years. I have always been disappointed with every Kung Pao version... now I only make it at home. I just gave up.

    Hunan shrimp has very few ingredients (like all great Asian recipes) so it shouldn't be complicated to make and one recipe is very similar to the other. You mention that the restaurant you enjoyed was in the 70s so I wonder if it isn't so much the ingredients in the recipe as the method in which it was prepared.

    Very few restaurants 'velvet' shrimp anymore but it used to be commonplace decades ago and still is in finer Asian eateries. Truth is it is just too time consuming for restaurants to bother with it, anymore, and we ignorant Americans generally don't know what we are missing. But true authentic Hunan cuisine often uses this process. Velveting is a method of cooking where meat is coated in a mixture of corn starch and wine prior to stir frying. Velveting keeps meat moist and prevents overcooking. It gives dishes a smooth and silky texture.

    Maybe your restaurant in the 70s was still preparing it the old-fashioned way and that is the difference. icon_confused.gif
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