General Tso’s chicken is a staple of Chinese restaurants across America, but unless you follow Chinese cooking, you likely don’t know who invented it. It’s a dish of recent invention, driven by social forces and American tastes, and the man at the center of it all, Peng Chang-kuei, has passed away at 98.
Like so many Chinese people, Chang-kuei fled the political turmoil of China in the early 20th century. He had been the banquet chef of the Nationalist government during China’s struggles with its future during the time, and when it became clear that the Communist regime was taking over and anyone in the Nationalist government were facing long prison sentences (at best), he escaped to Taiwan to cook for the government in exile. It was there, he later claimed in an interview, that he invented the dish we’d know as General Tso’s chicken in 1952. Why? Because he ran out of other dishes and had to think on his feet. For a touch of patriotism, he named it after Zuo Zongtang (formerly romanized as Tso), a military leader and statesman well-known in China.
In 1973, Chang-kuei left for America, and was confronted with American Chinese cuisine. Chinese cuisine in America had a strange look and feel to a traditional chef. Created largely by chefs who had to improvise with American ingredients and cater to American tastes, it was a far cry from the Hunan cuisine Chang-kuei specialized in. So he updated General Tso’s in an attempt to adjust Hunan food to American tastes: Tso’s was much sweeter than the traditional cuisine. But it did the job: The New York Times, in 1977, called his Tso’s “a stir-fried masterpiece”.
Because the dish is so simple, and thus easy to replicate, it quickly spread to restaurants across America and in fact some claim the original dish arrived a full year earlier in America. Chang-kuei, however, was successful regardless: He returned to Taiwan and opened a restaurant chain, Peng’s Garden, that’s popular to this day. He passed away November 30th at 98, but in America, at least, he’ll always be remembered for the dish he pioneered.
(Via Taiwan News)