During the Qing Dynasty, Tso TsungTang was a ruthless “war hero”. In 1850-64, during the Chinese Civil War, the Taiping Rebellion, he caused many to flee China, eventually making it to America to work on the transcontinental railroad.
Hailing from Hunan Province, General Tso’s relatives, to this day, have never heard of General Tso’s Chicken. Now, I have only been in China a short time, about 20 months, I have never seen General Tso’s Chicken on a menu nor have I seen anything in any restaurant that even resembles what we in America know as General Tso’s Chicken. Not only have I never seen the General’s Chicken, but, I am sorry to have to tell you that egg rolls, chop suey, crab rangoon, sweet and sour pork/chicken, pu pu platter, fried rice, hot mustard and finally fortune cookies basically do not exist in China. For that matter, I can’t think of one thing from a Chinese menu in the USA that I have actually seen or eaten in China, except white rice.
I am fairly certain that American Chinese food at some point in time actually had roots in mainland China cuisine. Back to General Tso for a minute, rumor and history claim that a Chef from Taiwan actually created a dish to honor General Tso. Chef Peng ChangKuei, fled Hunan Province under Mao Zedong. He fled to Taiwan and this is where he supposedly created his dish. During the early 1970’s Chinese cuisine was booming in NYC. Chef’s were always creating dishes claiming “first time in America” “Authentic Chinese Dish”. Of course they really were first time dishes because they were created to satisfy the American palate and yes, they did have roots in authentic Chinese cuisine, but those roots really weren’t too deep. Mostly because most Americans wouldn’t stomach some authentic Chinese dishes such as feichang 猪肠 pig’s intestines,
fengzhao 鸡爪 chicken feet, duck’s blood soup, jellyfish, seaweed, goat kidneys, hearts, you name it, they eat it in China. So, back to Chef Peng, the story goes that 2 chef’s from NYC went to Taiwan for inspiration and ate at Peng’s restaurant. They brought his most famous dish back to America, recreated and bastardized it. Peng finally also came to NYC and was disgusted to see what had happened to his dish honoring General Tso. Not only that, he couldn’t convince anyone that it was originally his dish.
So, the whole point I am trying to make is that American Chinese food is really just American food made by people of Chinese decent.
A few other ways food/dining culture here in China differs is that you rarely find anything fried or breaded. Egg rolls do not exist, although spring rolls do. Spring rolls have a much lighter thin translucent wrapper and are not fried but steamed. Chicken dishes in China are not nice diced pieces of boneless chicken. If you order a chicken dish in China, expect a dish to arrive that is a chicken chopped, bones, skin, head and feet all in the dish.
Don’t get me wrong, it is always delicious, sautéed with herbs, spices and sometimes vegetables, but never a breaded and fried and slathered in sauce dish. Usually a touch of oil, soy or vinegar, never swimming in a sweet and sour or any other sauce. If a dish has sauce, it is always on the side for dipping and this is usually just for meat dishes. Vegetables are prepared in such a mouthwatering way with ginger, garlic, chili peppers, peppercorns, etc, there is no need for any sauces.
Chinese also love grilling. When I am out in the evenings the smell of lamb, chicken and beef being grilled on the street is heavenly. Now, when I say grill, don’t think hamburgers, chicken breast or a big fat sirloin, they grill most all of their meat on kabobs served with small dishes of spices to dip.
Chinese cuisine in China also pays more attention to veggies and bean products versus meat and fried dishes like in America. The Chinese have a way with eggplant that I can’t explain. It is simple and amazing. I hope to find someone to teach me to make it.
A few other differences; in China you never order/get individual servings. Everything is served family style. You also don’t serve food on to your personal plate and eat. Mainly because you don’t really receive a plate. You do get a small saucer size plate and a small bowl. This is to basically catch scraps, put things to cool or put waste. Yes, you spit the bones on the table or on your small plate. Depending on the restaurant, it is perfectly acceptable to spit your chicken/pig/sheep bones onto the floor. Using your chopsticks, you just grab a bite of whichever dish you want and eat.
Don’t expect bing shui, cold water in China, basically it doesn’t exist. You will ALWAYS be served hot water with a meal. It can be the middle of summer and the spiciest dish on the menu, you get hot water. Okay, so you think, I will order a beer……. room temperature. Tipping doesn’t exist. A receipt for your meal, forget about it, unless you ask for a “fapiao”. This is a receipt with an official government stamp you can use if you need to be reimbursed.
So, China is a huge country, cuisine does differ from province to province. Hunan spicy is much different than Szechuan spicy, some provinces favor sweeter foods, bottom line, Chinese food on mainland China is not what we eat in America. I did google to find out the most popular dish throughout all of China. Surprise, a simple egg and tomato dish. I have to say I believe this to true. No matter where I have been in China, I do always see eggs (usually sorta scrambled) mixed with tomatoes. It is delicious.
Depending on where you live, rice or noodles may be more popular. Noodles differ by region, rice noodles, egg noodles, tofu noodles, fat, thin, etc. 2 other popular dishes, baozi which is a steamed bun stuffed with meat or vegetables and jiaozi or dumplings. Both are usually dipped in a garlic vinegar sauce.
What do I miss most….sometimes I crave a big juicy burger, a pepperoni pizza, a thick blood rare steak, chardonnay……. I can usually find a way to satisfy these cravings. I am sharing some photos of typical dishes that I enjoy and maybe some I don’t.
My biggest disappointment: NO CHEESE IN CHINA!
Some more photos of food I have had in China………
7 thoughts on “Who Was General Tso and Why Do Americans Eat His Chicken?”
Clark, as always, thanks for your comments. Being a foodie like me, you would adore authentic Chinese cooking. I only hope when I return I can recreate some of the dishes. Although, I do have to admit, on more than one occasion, I have put something in my mouth and had to control the gag reflex. Haha… but to quote James Michener, “If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay at home”. My journey here in the middle kingdom has been more than I ever imagined. Take care and look forward to seeing you and Barb and the gang when I am in Warren.
We can’t wait to have you back but while you are gone, your writings and pictures fill the void admirably. What Michener said is so true. It is seldom that I speak to someone who has spent as much time living around the world as you that are full of fear of the customs, religions, foods and people of other cultures. People who immerse themselves in someone else’s world find it impossible to be small and bigoted. People who “eat fear” daily are the true definition that, “You are what you eat”. BTW, all the pictures and text seem fine….nothing overlapping. So many of those pictures have activated my salivary responses!
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You have obviously immersed yourself in the culture in so many ways that are admirable. Compared to the rest of the world, we put about half of what is available animal protein wise in our mouths and stomachs, It is almost a sanitized way to eat and even at that, so many people have so many self imposed restrictions mostly based on what they ate as children and liked or didn’t like. When adults turn their noses up at perfectly good, even great food, because it is unfamiliar, I want to scream…
I have seen a couple of shows on Netflix/Amazon about the origin of General Tso and most other Chinese food dishes we eat here. You are so right, nothing remotely resembling authentic Chinese cooking. It was fascinating to read what you have shared and get a hint of what you have consumed. Thanks, as always!