Each evening, thousands of Americans drift into Chinese restaurants or, if they are too lazy to go out, pick up the phone and order one of the most popular dishes on the menu: General Tso's Chicken, a sugary-spicy melange of dark-meat tidbits, deep-fried then fired up with ginger, garlic, sesame oil, scallions and hot chili peppers.
Not one in 10,000 knows who General Tso (most commonly pronounced "sow") was, nor what terrible times he lived through, nor the dark massacres that distinguished his baleful, belligerent career. Setting their chopsticks aside, patting their stomachs, the satisfied diners spare scarcely a thought for General Tso, except to imagine that he must have been a great connoisseur of hot stir-fried chicken.
Who was he?
General Tso Tsungtang, or as his name is spelled in modern Pinyin, Zuo Zongtang, was born on Nov. 10, 1812, and died on Sept. 5, 1885. He was a frighteningly gifted military leader during the waning of the Qing dynasty, a figure perhaps the Chinese equivalent of the American Civil War commander William Tecumseh Sherman. He served with brilliant distinction during China's greatest civil war, the 14-year-long Taiping Rebellion, which claimed millions of lives.
Tso was utterly ruthless. He smashed the Taiping rebels in four provinces, put down an unrelated revolt called the Nian Rebellion, then marched west and reconquered Chinese Turkestan from Muslim rebels.
Arthur W. Hummel devotes five double-columned pages to the general in the monumental 1944 "Eminent Chinese of the Ch'ing Period (1644-1912)" published by the Library of Congress.
Tso emerges from several sources as a self-made man, born in Hunan province, a hilly hot-tempered heartland, whose cuisine rivals that of Sichuan for sheer firepower. (While Sichuan food is hot right up front, in the mouth, in your face; Hunanese cuisine tends to build up inside you, like a slow charcoal fire, until you feel as though your belly is filled with burning coals.)
As a young man Tso flunked the official court exams three times, a terrible disgrace. He returned home, married and devoted himself to practical studies, like agriculture and geography. He took up silkworm farming and tea farming and chose a gentle sobriquet, calling himself "The Husbandman of the River Hsiang." Like Sherman, stuck teaching at a military academy in Louisiana on the eve of the Civil War, he seemed washed up.
He was 38 when the Taiping Rebellion broke out in 1850. For the rest of his life, Tso would wield the sword, becoming one of the most remarkably successful military commanders in Chinese history.
The Taiping Rebellion -- a movement that in part advocated Christian doctrine -- nearly toppled the Qing dynasty. It was founded by Hong Xiuquan, a Chinese mystic who believed he was the younger brother of Jesus. The whole astonishing episode has been described admirably by Yale scholar Jonathan Spence in his "God's Chinese Son." (Norton, 1996).
Tso made war, and war made Tso. He began his military career as an adjutant and secretary for the governor of Hunan province. He raised a force of 5,000 volunteers and took the field in September 1860, driving the Taiping rebels out of Hunan and Guangxi provinces, into coastal Zhejiang. There he captured the big cities of Shaoxing, still famous for its sherrylike rice wine. From there he pushed south into Fujian and Guangdong provinces, where the revolt had first begun and spread, and had crushed the Taipings by the time the rebellion ended in 1864.
The Taiping Rebellion was the greatest upheaval in 19th century China. It caused massive displacements and shifts in population. Hundreds of thousands of people fled or emigrated, many to America, where they worked building the transcontinental railroad, which was completed in 1869.
It would be possible to leave the story here and say that General Tso's Chicken simply honors a great personality, just as Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, is honored in Beef Wellington; Pavel Stroganoff, a 19th-century Russian diplomat, in Beef Stroganoff; Count Charles de Nesselrode (another 19th-century Russian diplomat) in Nesselrode Pudding,; or Australian opera singer Nellie Melba in the dessert, Peach Melba. Indeed some believe it quite likely that the dish was whipped up for the general after some signal victory, just as Chicken Marengo was whipped up for Napoleon after he defeated the Austrians at Marengo on June 14, 1800.
Still, the recipe is not particularly original -- the ingredients are used in many stir-fry Chinese dishes -- and the dark meat chicken argues for a humbler origin. It's a poor man's dish, not a feast for a field marshal.
Is it possible that, struggling to carve out a new life in America under backbreaking adversities, and having heard of the sword skills of the remorseless General Tso (who had the top leaders of the Nian Rebellion executed with the proverbial "death of 10,000 cuts"), the overseas exiles indulged in some gallows-humor about their old enemy? That the chopped-up chicken dish may have gotten its name from the sliced and diced victims of Tso's grim reprisals?
This might conceivably explain why General Tso's Chicken is very much an overseas Chinese dish, filtering the hot, peppery taste of Hunan cuisine, through the sweetening process of Cantonese cooking. Most of the immigrants to America came from coastal regions: Shanghai and Canton.
Tso Much For That
The details of Tso's life are easy to document. But how the chicken got named for him is another matter. In "Chinese Kitchen" (Morrow, 1999), author Eileen Yin-Fei Lo says that dish is a Hunan classic called "chung ton gai," or "ancestor meeting place chicken."
But to others, General Tso's chicken recipe may be no more ancient than 1972, and may have more in common with Manhattan than with mainland China. On "The Definitive General Tso's Chicken Page" New Yorker Eric Hochman theorizes "It was invented in the mid-1970s, in NYC, by one Chef Peng.
"Around 1974, Hunan and Szechuan food were introduced to the city, and General Tso's Chicken was an exemplar of the new style. Peng's, on East 44th Street, was the first restaurant in NYC to serve it, and since the dish (and cuisine) were new, Chef Peng was able to make it a House Specialty, in spite of its commonplace ingredients."
My own research led me to the same city, but a different Manhattan restaurateur, who claims the dish is the brilliant invention of his former partner, a gifted Chinese immigrant chef named T.T. Wang.
"He went into business with me in 1972," said Michael Tong, owner of New York's Shun Lee Palaces, East (155 E. 55th St.) and West (43 W. 65th St.). "We opened the first Hunanese restaurant in the whole country, and the four dishes we offered you will see on the menu of practically every Hunanese restaurant in America today. They all copied from us.
"First, Lake Tung Ting shrimp. Lake Tung Ting in northern Hunan province is very famous for its shrimp.
"Second, crispy sea bass. We roll them in cornstarch and we fry them crispy. Then we shower them with the sauce. A lot of restaurants will use catfish, but they don't know how to cook them in the sauce, so they put the sauce on the ide. Sometimes they just give you plain soy sauce. We know how to cook them in the sauce.
"Third, orange crispy beef. This is very, very popular with us. Any Hunan or Sichuan restaurant, if you call them and ask for orange crispy beef, they will know what you are talking about. We invented it.
"Fourth, General Tso's chicken, sometimes called General Tsung's chicken or General Tsao's chicken."
If Tong's tale is true, General Tso never ate the dish named after him. The great warrior, the prop of the Qing dynasty, the subduer of rebels and uprisings who carved his name into Chinese history at the point of a sword, had to wait more than 100 years for an inventive expatriate chef to award him his American triumph and make his name famous in the West.
General Tso, most likely, was a man ahead of his dish.