‘The Search for General Tso” doesn’t seem like much at first glance. A scrappy little documentary, just 73 minutes long, about that mysteriously ubiquitous staple of Chinese restaurants, General Tso’s chicken, it seems like the cinematic equivalent of fast food. An hour later, maybe, and you’ll be hungry for a real documentary.
But this labor of love from filmmaker Ian Cheney (“King Corn”) — a New England native and Milton Academy grad who now works out of Western Massachusetts — keeps digging and digging until it has not only solved the enigma of this particular dish but cast a light on an entire secret chronology of food, immigrant culture, and the way the two amplify each other. The film does so with great affection and brisk style but also with a nose for the truth, which is buried under so many layers of history and stir-fried broccoli that it takes a globe-trotting sleuth and a battalion of talking heads to ferret it out.
Yes, Virginia, there was a General Tso (1812-1885) — not Cho, Tsao, or Tau according to the documentary — and under his full name, Tso Tsung-t’ang, he was a military leader and statesman in Hunan province during the late Qing Dynasty. Maybe he liked chicken but he certainly never tasted his namesake meal, which didn’t appear on US menus until the early 1970s and which seems to be wholly unknown in China. Early in the film, Cheney has some hilarious sequences of average Chinese reacting with near-total bafflement to photos of the dish.
General Tso’s chicken, in fact, becomes a window through which the filmmaker can look out onto the history of the Chinese in America, beginning with the first arrivals during the California Gold Rush of 1849, through the Asian Exclusion Act of 1882 and its eventual repeal during World War II, and into the so-called Golden Age of Chinese cuisine following President Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to the People’s Republic of China.
We hear tales of discrimination and assimilation from aging first-generation restaurateurs, their second-generation progeny, historians, cultural commentators like Jennifer 8. Lee (one of the film’s co-producers), ethnic foodies, even a collector of Chinese restaurant menus — an organized hoarder, really — whose boxes go back decades and through which can be traced the development of an immigrant cuisine into something wholly American.
That’s the underlying theme of “The Search for General Tso” — that what we think of as Chinese food has little, if any, relationship to food eaten in China. Fortune cookies? Unknown in the mother country. The sugar that’s a critical ingredient of General Tso’s chicken for sweet-toothed US diners? Anathema in the fiery Hunan cuisine from which the dish arose. Food changes to fit the palates of those eating it, and since America is a land of constant influx, Cheney takes us to restaurants serving Indian-Chinese, Mexican-Chinese, artisanal Chinese. You can get General Tso’s veal, General Tso’s soft-boiled egg, a General Tso tofu sandwich. And, yes, there are now restaurants in China that serve what we call General Tso’s chicken, presumably for homesick American tourists.
Yet there is a tortuous and ultimately satisfying provenance for the meal. (Warning: spoilers ahead.) The accepted history is that T. T. Wang of Manhattan’s Hunan restaurant created General Tso’s chicken in 1972, but Cheney uncovers the fact that Wang and other US chefs had made a regular habit of copying dishes served at a certain restaurant in Taipei, Taiwan. There Chef Peng Chang-kuei — once Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek’s personal cook — served a special spicy meal that he had created for one general and named for another. And here is where the trail finally ends.
Chef Peng is still alive and very old; Cheney drops in for a visit and shows him pictures of what we call General Tso’s chicken in America. The old man shudders. “This is all crazy nonsense,” he says. It’s noted that General Tso himself was a guardian of Chinese tradition and would himself shudder at what the dish named for him has become. On the other hand, what does “authenticity” even mean when it comes to cuisine that has assimilated into another culture along with the people who make it? The best food — the kind we want again and again — always tastes like home. Wherever that is.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.