Peng Chang-kuei, the acclaimed Taiwanese chef many credit with inventing the iconic General Tso’s chicken, passed away on November 30 at the age of 98.
Despite its reputation as the epitome of Hunanese cuisine, there is no longstanding tradition of the dish within the region. Until recently, many Hunanese had never heard of General Tso’s chicken--it was a foreigner in its supposed homeland. There are differing accounts of its invention. In one version, Peng created General Tso’s chicken for a banquet in Taiwan during the 1950s and named it after lauded Hunanese general Zuo Zongtang.
Peng came to the United States in the 1970s, bringing the dish with him and serving it at his restaurant in New York City. He modified his invention, along with old recipes, to suit the American palette. As Peng explained to Chinese food scholar Fuchsia Dunlop, there was no sugar in his original version of General Tso’s chicken. It highlighted the heavy, sour, salty, and hot flavors quintessential to classic Hunanese cuisine.
General Tso’s chicken gained popularity and other chefs began cooking and modifying it. In a curious twist of fate, a dish that was unknown in the land it was said to come from later became practically unrecognizable to the man said to create it. While researching her book, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, journalist Jennifer 8. Lee met Peng and presented photos of several contemporary versions of his dish. Apparently, he was horrified to see how much it had changed.
Lee said, “He criticized the next picture because the chilies were red instead of black. But that was a minor crime compared to the travesties in some of the other versions he saw ... He shook his head when he saw the baby corn and carrots in a version from Dover, N.H. ... As he left, he told me that this was all moming-qimiao. Nonsense.”
In 2014, Lee produced The Search for General Tso, a film that features interviews with Peng. By tracing the origins of General Tso’s chicken, the documentary highlights the innovation and adaptation of immigrants, as well as the politics, history, and culture that shape their food.