We all remember our firsts. I mean, who doesn't remember their first friend? Their first car? Or maybe even... their first time eating Chinese food? I remember all three, but I won't bore you with the details. I will, however, tell you that my first experience ordering from a take-out "Chinese" restaurant is not a memory that I'm proud of.

I couldn't come to understand how to pronounce 'tso.' So, when it came time for me to order, I actually said nothing, and pointed at the picture of the dish on the overhead menu. I think that's what I regret the most about my experience: I didn't even try to say it aloud.

General Tso's chicken is one of the most popular "Chinese" dishes in America. So I don't think I'm the only one asking how to pronounce 'tso'. In fact, there are a lot of questions that I had about this dish before writing this article. Why? Because there's so much to learn. In fact, the history and origins of it may surprise you. Let's get started, and unravel the mysteries behind how to pronounce General Tso and what it actually is. 

What Exactly is General Tso's Chicken?

General Tso's Chicken is an americanized Chinese chicken dish, made from dark meat that is cut, deep fried, and tossed in a wok with a sweet, tangy sauce. "The Search for General Tso," a documentary that investigates the origins of this dish, describes it as a combination of flavors that is "garlicky, tangy, intensive, sweet, and salty." 

Who was General Tso?

General Tso was a 19th century general in the Qing dynasty, who originated from the Hunan Province in Southeast China. In her TED Talk, "The Hunt for General Tso," Jennifer 8. Lee notes that "he played an important role in the Taiping Rebellion...the deadliest civil war in the world to this day." Ultimately, Tso strived to maintain Chinese values in the face of colonization by Westerners. In fact, "in China, this guy's actually known for war and not chicken." 

How Did the Dish Come About?

Kimberly Gerbert

General Tso's Chicken is a dish that is typically unknown to the Chinese. Although General Tso was Hunanese, the dish and the general do not have similar origins. After the California Gold Rush in the 1850s, many Chinese began to immigrate to the United States. In response to the subsequent Chinese Exclusion Act, Chinese immigrants were forced to self-employ themselves. Thus, they went into restaurant work and adapted simple dishes to American tastes. 

After these businesses diffused throughout the United States, chef T.T. Wang introduced General Tso's Chicken to New York City in the 1970s. To better suit American tastes, he added a significant amount of sugar to the dish, and it was a success. Although this was the first instance of General Tso's chicken in the USA, it had already been established by Chef Peng of Peng's Hunan Yuan in Taiwan during the early 1960s.  

After being forced to flee to Taiwan from China in response to the communist regime, Peng was led to create dishes that reminded him of his home, Hunan, and capitalized on the hot and sour components that Hunan dishes are known for. When he discovered that his dish was being copied in America, he went to New York City and opened his own restaurant. Unfortunately, Americans believed that Peng was copying Wang, and he was ultimately unsuccessful.

So, How Do You Pronounce "General Tso?"

Sesame, Dumplings, broccoli, rice, chicken, shrimp, curry
Casey Twomey

Well, it depends on how you spell it. Across America, the spelling of 'tso' is well debated. Spellings such as "tsao," "tsau," and "gau," have been found in Chinese takeout menus across the nation. The most popular, however, is the one that we've all come to know and love: tso. So, FINALLY. The big reveal: you don't pronounce the "T." 'Tso' is pronounced just as you would say "so." 

Unless you're super out of the loop and haven't ordered this dish before, then it's highly unlikely that knowledge of this particular dish will save you from embarrassment. Even for those of you who already knew how to say it, the rest of the menu is filled with items that are difficult to pronounce. I mean, you can't expect every dish to be titled as simply as "Beef with Broccoli." But at least you know for future reference. So get on out there and make a fool of yourself. The embarrassment is part of the experience.