General Tso’s chicken is my favorite Chinese dish, even though it is unknown in China. As comedian Margaret Cho has quipped, “It’s sweet, it’s fried, and it’s chicken. Everything Americans love.”
The dish is supposedly derived from Hunan cuisine (wrong) and was a favorite of General Tso Tsung-tang (wrong again), who was a Qing dynasty general and statesman.
The Qing dynasty was the last imperial dynasty in China dating from 1644 to 1912, and its end was depicted in the movie The Last Emperor of China. The dynasty followed the earlier and better-known Ming dynasty. It is almost certain General Tso (1812–1885) never ate anything resembling the modern dish, and would be surprised at becoming the eponym for it. The dish is unknown even in his home town, and none of his remaining descendants has heard of it.
The name varies widely. Wikipedia lists:
General Tao’s chicken,
Governor Tso’s chicken,
General Tsao’s chicken,
General Gau’s chicken,
General Tong’s chicken,
General Tang’s chicken,
General Cho’s chicken,
General Chau’s chicken,
General Joe’s chicken,
General Ching’s chicken,
House chicken, or
The General’s chicken.”
And this does not even include American’s mispronunciation of what is printed on the menus. The various names all refer to some form of the same sweet, fried, chicken dish, all similar but not necessarily identical. There is no standard recipe, and Chinese restaurants will go along with whatever their customers are looking for: You want “General Snot’s chicken?” Sure, we have that. Number 5. We call it General Tso’s. With white rice or fried?
(Since Chinese dishes are cooked individually, restaurants can and will prepare it any way you like. Feel free to ask. For example, you could ask for the General Tso chicken with a few vegetables in it. They will be glad to oblige.)
Considering its American roots, I like the name “General Joe’s chicken.” Perhaps in Philly they could call it “General Hospital’s chicken.
I have been to China, eaten authentic Chinese cuisine, and I prefer our Americanized version by far. I love General Tso’s chicken, whatever it is called, wherever it originated. Margaret Cho is right. It has”everything Americans love,” and I’m an American.
I kid you not.