Chef Peng Chang-kuei, the inventor of the world-famous Chinese dish General Tso’s chicken, has died.
The restaurateur died of pneumonia on Wednesday at the age of 98, Taiwan News reported. Peng was a native of China’s Hunan Province and founded the restaurant chain Peng’s Garden Hunan Restaurant. In 2014, he was honored as an “Outstanding Citizen” by the Taipei City Government for his culinary achievements.
As a teenager, Peng served as an apprentice to famous chef Cao Jingchen, and worked his way up to being placed in charge of Nationalist government banquet by the end of World War II, according to NPR. When the Communists defeated the Nationalists in 1949, Peng fled to Taiwan, where he continued to work as a celebrated chef.
He first developed General Tso’s chicken — the lightly battered, sweet and sour-sauced chicken pieces that are ubiquitous in American Chinese restaurants — sometime in the 1950s.
“General Tso’s chicken did not preexist in Hunanese cuisine,” he told NPR. “But originally the flavors of the dish were typically Hunanese — heavy, sour, hot and salty.”
In 2014, he told the Taipei Times that he came up with the idea while preparing banquets for a U.S. admiral who was visiting Taiwan. The admiral had already tried most of Peng’s food, so the chef whipped up the new creation on a whim to avoid repeating a dish.
He named it “General Tso’s Chicken” in reference to an acclaimed military general from Hunan.
While the chicken is arguably now the most well known Hunanese dish worldwide, NPR noted in 2007 that it’s hard to find in Hunan itself.
So how did General Tso’s end up as America’s signature Chinese dish? According to Menuism, competing Chinese-American chefs David Keh and T.T. Wang both traveled to Taiwan for culinary inspiration, and both wound up eating General Tso’s chicken at Peng’s restaurant. Then in 1971, both started serving extremely similar dishes at their own establishments in New York.
And in 1973, Peng himself opened a restaurant in New York City, winning a devoted and powerful fan in American Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who helped popularize Peng’s food. Peng told NPR that when he traveled the United States, he started making the chicken sweeter to appeal to U.S. palates.
Bizarrely, another creator of an iconic food item died just days earlier. Michael “Jim” Delligati, who invented the McDonald’s Big Mac, died Monday, also at the age of 98.