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There are two slightly separate questions:
- What is the origin of General Tso's Chicken, the name of the dish?
They are, according to my obsessive research, different answers.
First of all, it is not a dish that is widely known in China. That it is there at all, it is because it was introduced from abroad. General Tso is also known as Zuo Zongtang (左宗棠), a Qing dynasty military hero that played an important role in the Taiping Rebellion which was a civil war started by a Chinese guy who thought he was the son of God and the baby brother of Jesus Christ (really). Zuo is roughly equivalent to General Sherman in U.S. culture.
* The name of the dish, as best I could tell, was created by Chef C.K. Peng (or Peng Chang-kuei) in Taiwan during the 1950s or so. As of 2011 he is still alive, in his 90s, hanging in there and his family still runs fancy restaurants where yes, they serve General Tso's chicken.
Peng is from Hunan Province, the same as General Tso/Zuo, though fled when the Communists took over China. Anyway, in Taiwan he was cooking a fancy banquet, and you have to come up with fancy names for fancy dishes at fancy banquets. He had a fancy chicken dish, and wanted to name it after his home town hero. Fast forward to NYC in the 1960s/1970s, when he came and introduced this dish in NYC. Henry Kissinger was a fan. Here is a picture of Kissinger with Chef Peng.
Now I went to eat the General Tso's chicken in Taipei. It's really not the same. It's not sweet, not deep fried, and has sometimes skin and bone thing going on. It's not the sweet, fried, chickeny dish that Americans know and love. This is a picture of the dish.
* So General Tso's chicken, the recipe, as far as I can best tell, was originally known as General Ching's chicken and introduced by a Chef T.T. Wang in New York City. (And yes, General Ching knew General Tso, he was actually General Tso's mentor). You can see the vestiges of General Ching's chicken on the Internet here and there if you Google it. The dish was crispy fried with a bit of a tangy sweet thing going on.
Somewhere in the 1980s, General Tso's chicken -- the name -- merged with General Ching's chicken -- the recipe -- and a cultural sensation was born!
If you think about it, what makes General Tso's chicken so successful is what makes Chicken McNuggets and sweet and sour sauce so successful. Americans love things which are sweet, fried and chicken.
More on General Tso
This is the billboard from when I visited General Tso's hometown in rural Hunan province in my journey to find the source of General Tso's chicken. It basically says "Welcome to the Hometown of the Famous Qing Dynasty Figure General Tso, Xiangyin." (The transliteration of General Tso's name in modern pinyin Chinese is Zuo Zongtang, 左宗棠). Zuo is roughly pronounced 'juoh.'
His family -- five generations later -- is still hanging out in that town. They actually have a whole section of the village named after them "The Zuo Family Section." The short story is there is no General Tso's chicken in his hometown, but they still think fondly of his military exploits. What I discovered in America: General Tso, like Colonel Sanders, is known for chicken and not war. In China, he is known for war and not chicken.
Americans are obsessed with this dish:
Note, at the U.S. Naval Academy it's called Admiral Tso's chicken.