General Tso's Chicken can be found in nearly every Chinese take-out, buffet, and restaurant across the United States. However, contrary to popular belief, the dish itself has minimal ties to traditional Chinese cuisine. In fact, many Chinese people have only in recent history become aware of the dish through popular American media.
General Tso's Chicken was actually first cooked in Taiwan in 1955. Chef Peng Chang-kuei was head chef of the Nationalist government.
Seeking to please visiting U.S. admiral Arthur Radford, Peng created the unique spicy-tangy dish and immediately named it after General Tso-Tsung-tang, an infamous military leader from his hometown Hunan, China.
In 1972, Chef Peng opened a restaurant in New York and the dish was a hit.
He served many American officials, most notably, secretary of state at the time Henry Kissinger. His media attention, highlighting the dish, inspired a multitude of Chinese-American restaurants to adopt their own versions.
Some restaurants play on the tangy flavors of the sauce by incorporating more rice wine vinegar and sugar than originally used, while other dishes incorporate more dried red chili peppers for a spicier approach. The original recipe calls for breading on the chicken, which is also something many chefs have created recipe alterations for.
Inadvertently, U.S. relations with China improved as U.S. citizens began to view Chinese cuisine more positively. This relationship further improved with President Nixon's trip to Beijing in 1972, generating a new market for Chinese-American cuisine.
Because of its widespread attention, many information about is origin has become lost in the spotlight. There is a 2015 documentary called The Search For General Tso (available on Netflix), tributing Chef Peng for his culinary accomplishment and highlighting the roots of his creation.
Chef Peng, who died at the age of 98 last year, will not only be remembered for his monumental and delectable culinary creation of General Tso's Chicken, but for how his creation changed American and Chinese relations for the better by sparking a newfound imagination for Chinese-American cuisine.