14 December 2016

A final salute to the chef who brought the world General Tso's chicken

Henry Kissinger, who is still active in US-China diplomacy, played the role of culinary diplomat in the 1970s.

Kissinger was a regular at the Hunan Yuan restaurant on Manhattan's East Side, not far from United Nations headquarters.

On the menu was General Tso's chicken, and there was no better place to indulge in it than at the restaurant of the chef who created the dish: Peng Chang-kuei.

Peng passed away on Nov 30 in Taipei at age 97 or 98, depending on which account you read. His funeral will be held on Dec 15 in Taipei.

Born in Changsha, capital of Hunan province, Peng ran away at age 13 and apprenticed under noted Hunanese chef Cao Jing-shen. After the Japanese invasion in the 1930s, Peng moved to Chongqing, and during the Chinese Civil War, fled with the Nationalist government to Taiwan in 1949.

Legend (on Chinese-restaurant paper place mats) has it that the chef for the actual General Tso — Zuo Zongtang, who had helped put down a series of rebellions during the Qing Dynasty in the 19th century — called out sick one day, so the general himself had to cook something up for a dinner party. He whipped up his chicken dish, and the guests raved about it.

But the real story is that Peng concocted the dish in 1955, for a visit by a US admiral during the Taiwan Straits crisis.

In America, General Tso's chicken is almost always deep fried and smothered in a hot, sticky-sweet sauce, with dried chili peppers and broccoli flowers and served over rice. As Peng first prepared it, though, it was neither crispy nor sugary.

In the early 1970s, a time when Chinese cuisine was flourishing on the New York dining scene, the Hunam (spelled with an "m") restaurant and its executive chef Tsung Tsing Wang claimed the dish as their own, but they called it General Ching's.

Wang had traveled to Taiwan in 1971 for inspiration as he was preparing to open his Manhattan restaurant. In Taipei, he came across Peng's restaurant and General Tso's chicken.

When Peng opened his own New York restaurant in 1973, he was furious to discover a sweeter, crispier version of his dish was being served, not only at Wang's place but at another New York restaurant run by David Keh.

The history of the dish was featured in a 2014 documentary, The Search for General Tso, directed by Ian Cheney.

"We tasted the original General Tso's chicken in Taipei, and it was delicious; it was just different," Cheney told China Daily in 2015. "It was a little more tart; it had more of a ginger-and-garlic profile, much less breading than you'd find on General Tso's chicken in the states."

"This is all crazy nonsense," Peng says in Cheney's film, as he looks at how General Tso's is made in the US.

"The march of General Tso's chicken has been long and wide," Jennifer 8. Lee, author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, told The Associated Press. "It's the most popular of Chinese dishes in America, because it is sweet, fried and chicken — all things Americans love. It is easily a billion-dollar industry."

The elder Peng eventually returned to Taiwan in the 1980s and opened a chain of restaurants, where he worked nearly up to his death.

"My father thought other people's cooking was no good," his son, Chuck Peng, told AP. "The way he cooked was different; it was much better. General Tso's chicken is so famous because of Henry Kissinger, because he was among the first to eat it, and he liked it, so others followed."

"If we patented General Tso's chicken," he told Time.com, "we'd be extremely rich."

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