Filmmaker Ian Cheney was on the way to Iowa to shoot his first documentary, “King Corn,” when he wondered if a different film might be more fun to make. In 2004, over a late-night order of his go-to Chinese dish at a restaurant in Ohio, Cheney asked a question that would take him from Manhattan through many miles of small-town America and Taiwan in search of an answer. “There was something about this booth in this neon-lit restaurant in the middle of the Midwest that made me wonder who was General Tso and why were we all eating his chicken?” Cheney recalls.
A decade later, Cheney finished his exploration of the breaded chicken nuggets in a sweet and spicy sauce, often known in the Boston area as General Gau’s chicken. His latest film, “The Search for General Tso,” covers the origins and variations of the dish, while also telling the story of how Chinese restaurants spread across the American landscape despite the harsh racism often directed at Chinese immigrants. “Chinese-Americans have faced such an uphill battle and struggle for acceptance, and food has played such a fascinating role in that. I’m hoping that the film strikes the right tone of drawing people in with this curious tail of these syrupy red chicken nuggets, but then leaves us all with a better sense of the struggles every immigrant faces,” the filmmaker says. Cheney, 34, is currently a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT. He was raised in Maine and Milton, and lives in Northampton.
Q. Did you discover that there was a real General Tso?
A. There was a real 19th-century general. In a way, he was the General Sherman of China. General Zuo Zongtang was the guy who put down the Taiping Rebellion. His legacy was largely maintaining the modern map of China and keeping some western provinces from splitting off. He was fiercely proud of China and very skeptical of foreigners. Hence the irony of this dish, which doesn’t resemble much food you would find in China, especially in Hunan province where he was from.
Q. Was the dish a Chinese or American invention?
A. General Tso’s chicken first appeared in the US in New York City in the early 1970s and that chicken dish was different from the original recipe in Taiwan. The original General Tso’s chicken as it existed in Taiwan was created by a chef C.K. Peng in the mid-1950s for a big banquet. He wanted a dish that was fiery and special and he named it after this hero of his home country.
Q. Have you tried the Taiwanese version?
A. It was awesome and very different from the General Tso’s chicken here. It was so much less bready and it wasn’t sweet. It was spicier. It was a almost tart, a little sour in a good way, with more garlic and ginger than you would have in an American General Tso’s chicken. It didn’t have the same reddish hue and of course was not served with scallions or broccoli, which is not a Chinese vegetable.
Q. How did it make its way from Taiwan and New York fine-dining restaurants to ordinary establishments in the rest of the country?
A. It was partly in the wake of enthusiasm and curiosity for Chinese food that grew out of Nixon’s visit to China and also out of new waves of immigration. We weren’t able to pinpoint which were the first restaurants to sample the original recipes. We do know that by the ’80s, General Tso’s chicken had really spread across the country. It still hasn’t truly conquered California. Before P.F. Chang’s and Panda Express and other larger companies came along, how did those things get shared? It was partially through the staffing of Chinese restaurants.
Q. How did they stack up with the ones you ate growing up in the Boston area?
A. Most of the Chinese restaurants that we went to were also Polynesian restaurants and I don’t know why that was the thing. But you would get General Tso’s chicken and egg rolls as part of a pupu platter. Your parents would get cocktails with purple umbrellas and there’d be tiki torches. It would be the blending of all things from the Pacific.
Q. While making the movie, did you eat a lot of variations?
A. Definitely. Midwest General Tso’s chicken tends to be a little less spicy and a little more sweet. In the Southwest we saw folks who were making General Tso’s chicken burritos and it was a little spicier. In California, it usually manifests as orange chicken, which seems healthier. I suppose the Northeast is what I would associate as classic American General Tso’s chicken, which seems like a ridiculous thing to say.
Q. Do any versions stand out?
A. Chef Peng’s in Taiwan was amazing. The one we had at Leong’s Asian Diner in Springfield, Mo., which is where cashew chicken was invented, was also quite good.
Q. Beyond the origins of the dish, what is the larger story you were hoping to tell?
A. How did it come to be that in every small town across America and every big city, there’s a Chinese restaurant and a Chinese family? What’s the story behind that? It seemed to me that this dish with a slightly funny sounding name would be an entertaining window into a story that I knew nothing about.
“The Search for General Tso” is available on demand from iTunes, Amazon, and Comcast.