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How The Non-Chinese History Of General Tso's Chicken Helps Explain Life As A Second-Gen American

Courtesy of Ian Cheney. Copyright Wicked Delicate Films LLC. A Sundance Selects release.
A platter of General Tso's Chicken at a menu photo shoot.

Consider apple pie and how we regard it as quintessentially American.

Now, says Jennifer 8. Lee, consider Chinese food.

“How often do you eat apple pie versus how often do you eat Chinese food?” she asks.

Lee (yes, her middle name is the number 8) is a former New York Times reporter and the author of the 2008 book "The Fortune Cookie Chronicles,” which looked at the history of Chinese cuisine in the U.S.

“There are more than 50,000 Chinese restaurants in this country — more than McDonalds, Burger King, Wendy’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken combined," she says. 

Now a new documentary that Lee helped produce is zeroing in on one of the most iconic dishes found in Chinese restaurants across this country: General Tso’s chicken, that sweet and spicy fried chicken meal found on practically any menu in any Chinese restaurant in this country.

Directed by Ian Cheney, "The Search for General Tso" traces the history of the dish — a dish we learn that often bears little resemblance to the dish created by a Taiwanese chef back in the 1950s. And that’s the larger story of the film: What we think is “Chinese” food isn’t at all like what is served in China. (One of the best parts of the film is when the filmmakers take photos of General Tso’s chicken to show them to people in China. One woman thinks it looks like frog).

“It starts off as this high-end dish and over time, it gets assimilated and assimilated until basically it’s kind of an Everyman’s dish,” Lee explains.

The film journeys from Taiwan to small-town USA to answer two big questions: Who is General Tso (TsoTsung-t’ang, we find out, was a ruthless military leader during the Qing Dynasty) and why are we eating his chicken?

The answer to this last question has as much to do with how waves of Chinese have migrated to the U.S. and have survived (pre- and post-Chinese Exclusion Act) to President Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 (“a culinary milestone in Chinese American cuisine,” Lee says) and the taste buds of Americans in every nook and cranny of the country.

“Chinese food is found on all seven continents,” says Lee. “It’s everywhere. Monday night is Chinese food night at McMurdo Station in Antarctica." (The film doesn’t travel there, but it does travel to Louisiana to show us how much Chinese food has evolved: Szechuan alligator as well as Chinese gumbo!)

The film’s director Cheney has said that a decade earlier, while making his earlier documentary “King Corn,” he found himself in Ohio ordering his usual: General Tso’s chicken. And it got him thinking and wondering.

Cheney later found some answers in Lee’s book and decided to team up with the author to make this film. The documentary first screened at Tribeca last year and is now opening at theaters across the country. It opens Jan. 16 at the Grand Illusion in Seattle.

Lee grew up in New York City and she’d eat General Tso’s chicken and egg rolls and beef with broccoli. “And I’d order these dishes and my mom would look horrified and say, ‘These are not Chinese dishes!’ And it wasn’t until I went to China after college and [then] I really got to understand, ‘Oh, that’s right,’” she says.

Lee says these Chinese-American dishes represent her experience as the child of immigrant parents. 

“People look at General Tso’s chicken and say, ‘Oh, it’s exotic. It’s foreign. It’s Chinese!’ But in fact if you know the history of it, you realize it’s indigenous to Americans. At the same time, I look Chinese on the outside and people are always asking, ‘Where are you from?' 

"And you realize they look at you and they think you’re foreign. But if you listen to me and you sort of see how I act and [know] all my history, you realize I’m completely American as well," she says. “In a way, understanding General Tso’s chicken helped me understand my own experience as a second-generation American.”