Every day, thousands of people drift into Chinese restaurants to partake in one of China's most popular dishes--General Tso's Chicken. However, if any one of these people were to go to China and try to order this chicken, chances are most Chinese people would have no idea what they are talking about. So who was the namesake of these sweet and spicy fried chicken tidbits General Tso, and why does no one in China eat his delicious chicken? Was he even a real person or is Tso just a name for the dish?
General Tso was, in fact, a real person. Though he has about as much to do with the creation of General Tso's Chicken as Pavel Stroganov had to do with the creation of Beef Stroganoff.
Tso Tsungtang or Zou Zongtang was born on November 10th, 1812 and throughout his life became one of China's most frightening and talented military leaders until his death in 1885. He was born in Hunan province where the cuisine has the firepower to rival that of the infamous Sichuan province, though Hunan cuisine is a slow building burn that Sichuan is right up front. Tso's parents were wealthy enough to afford their son a decent education, however while he completed the second highest academic degree, Tso failed the exam for the highest degree three times. This highest degree would have gotten Tso a nice cushy seat in the Imperial Bureaucracy, but it was not meant to be. After giving up, Tso returned home and resigned himself to a simple life. He married and settled down where he farmed silkworms and tea.
For a normal man, this would be the end of his story. However, in 1850 the country broke out into civil war named the Taiping Rebellion. The conflict broke out between the ruling Qing Dynasty and the forces of Hong Xiuquan. Xiuquan was a convert to Christianity, but he stated that he had had visions from God revealing him to be God's son and the younger brother of Jesus. Through his dogma, Hong Xuiquan's forces took control of a large portion of southern China and founded the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom.
Two years into this rebellion, Tso was hired to be an advisor by the governor of Hunan and given full control of their military. Under his guidance, the military force of Hunan drove the rebels from their province before pushing them back further out of the Guangxi province. After driving the rebels from the coastal province of Zhejiang, Tso was appointed the Undersecretary of War. Through victories at Fujian and Guangdong, Tso forced his way into the seat of the rebellion where he dethroned the teenaged leader and crushed the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom.
General Tso's lightning fast victories in the Taiping Rebellion earned him many accolades including a promotion to Viceroy and Governor-General in the Provinces of Fujian, Zhejiang, Shaanxi, and Gansu. Tso went on to lead the defense against various rebellions as well as the Sino-French war, but was finally taken down by reoccurring bouts of malaria and dysentery that had plagued him throughout his military career.
Many would like to believe that General Tso's Chicken was cooked by the man himself in the field or presented as a gift by one of his admirers, much like Chicken Marengo was served to Napoleon after the Battle of Marengo. However, it is simply not so. In fact, General Tso was documented as enjoying pork more so than any other meat. The story says that General Tso was so upset by his expedition into the Muslim populated province of Xinjang because it lacked the meat he craved. He returned home to a feast was prepared for him. He disliked everything about the feast--the dancers, the musician, the people---but the amount of pork served more than made up for it and pleased him greatly.
So where did General Tso's Chicken come from then, if not from the man himself? After the Taiping Rebellion, which is considered one of the bloodiest civil wars in the world, many of those affected decided it was best to start over. They emigrated all over the world. It was in these new places that the Chinese immigrants would yearn for tastes of home. This is where many believe the invention of General Tso's Chicken occurred. The dish is a combination of spicy Hunan flavors with the sweetness that is prevalent in Cantonese cuisine, so this dish coming out of the Chinese Diaspora would make sense considering the combination of flavors. Likely the chicken dish was named after General Tso who was instrumental in the defeat of the Taiping Rebels to honor him.
However, the widely circulated version of General Tso's Chicken creation involves Chef Peng Jia. Like Tso, Peng was born in Hunan province where he became a firm supporter of the Nationalist party and worked as a chef to the Nationalist government banquets. When Communist Mao Zedong took control of the country in 1949, Peng, like many of the Nationalists, fled to Taiwan. It is said that somewhere in the 1950's, Peng created this tasty dish in Taiwan with traditional Hunan flavors. He named it after General Tso to honor both him and Hunan.
In the 1970's Peng immigrated to America where he opened a restaurant in New York. The spiciness of Hunan cuisine was lost on American palates, with the exception of Henry Kissinger who at there every time he was in New York. Even with Kissinger singing the praises of Peng's food around the world, the spiciness put people off. So, in an effort to better suit his food to American palate, Peng added sugar to sweeten it up.
Coincidentally, T.T. Wang claims to have created this dish during the same time and much in the same way. However, the chicken we enjoy today would be unrecognizable to either of these chefs. Every Chinese chef has their own alteration of it, making General Tso's Chicken taste different at every restaurant.
The origin story of General Tso's Chicken is no simple tale. Whether it was invented by Peng, T.T. Wang, homesick Chinese Immigrants, or General Tso himtself there is no way of knowing these days. Regardless, the chicken has lived up to its namesake by conquering the world much like General Tso himself conquered the Taiping rebels.