Q: I love General Tso’s chicken, but it leaves me hungry to learn more about this general and why my favorite Chinese dish is named for him.
A: The 19th-century general is known in China for his military, not his culinary, accomplishments. He helped the Qing dynasty win a civil war that lasted 14 years and cost millions of lives.
The general (Tso Tsung-t’ang in the old Wade-Giles system of transcribing Mandarin and Zuo Zongtang in the modern Pinyin system) came from Hunan, the home province of Peng Chang-kuei, the chef who created and named an early version of the dish in the 1950s in Taiwan.
Peng, a caterer for the Nationalist Chinese government, fled to Taiwan after the Nationalists were defeated by Mao Zedong’s Communists in 1949, according to the food writer William Grimes.
In Peng’s Dec. 2, 2016, obituary in the New York Times, Grimes says the chef created the dish for a visit “by Adm. Arthur W. Radford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during the Taiwan Strait crisis of 1955,” and “on the spur of the moment, he assigned it the name of a Hunanese general, Zuo Zongtang.”
In a Feb. 4, 2007, article in the New York Times Magazine, the British food writer Fuchsia Dunlop quotes Peng as saying the original dish was a sour, salty version of the sweet, tangy, deep-fried dish familiar to Americans.
“Originally the flavors of the dish were typically Hunanese—heavy, sour, hot and salty,” he said in a 2004 interview in Taiwan with Dunlop, author of Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook, a 2009 collection of Hunan recipes.
In the early 1970s, several Chinese chefs introduced Americanized versions of Peng’s original dish at New York restaurants, including Wen Dah Tai at Uncle Tai’s Hunan Yuan, the city’s first Hunan restaurant, and Tsung Ting Wang at Hunan.
In 1973, Peng joined them in New York at Uncle Peng’s Hunan Yuan. “The original General Tso’s chicken was Hunanese in taste and made without sugar,” Peng told Dunlop. “But when I began cooking for non-Hunanese people in the United States, I altered the recipe.”
The earliest written reference we’ve seen for the Americanized dish is from a review of Peng’s Manhattan restaurant by Mimi Sheraton in the March 18, 1977, issue of the New York Times: “General Tso’s chicken was a stir‐fried masterpiece, sizzling hot both in flavor and temperature.”
As for Peng, he returned to Taiwan in the late ’80s and opened the first in a chain of Peng Yuan restaurants there.
Like many Americanized Chinese dishes popular in the US, the General Tso’s chicken you love was unknown in China until recently, according to Grimes, a former restaurant critic at the Times and the author of Appetite City: A Culinary History of New York (2009).