“The Search for General Tso”: expanding the Taiwan story

Recently, I watched the documentary “The Search for General Tso.” For those in the U.S., it is currently available on various digital mediums (such as Netflix, Amazon.com, iTunes, etc.) for streaming, rent, or purchase. The name of the documentary in Chinese is 尋找左宗棠, and was released in May in Taiwan, and can be seen at 高雄市電影館 (Kaohsiung Film Archive). The purpose of the documentary is to find the origins of the dish called General Tso’s chicken, or 左宗堂雞. The dish becomes a starting point to discuss Chinese food in America, and the history of Chinese immigration and Chinese people in America. The documentary includes interviews with prominent scholars on Chinese in America, which includes prominent scholars on Chinese cuisine and history from the U.S. and Europe.

The documentary takes an American focused view, so its target is probably American audiences. In one part of the documentary, we travel to 湖南 (Hunan), the home province of 左宗堂. We meet scholars who show us around his hometown, where there is an hotel and an elementary school named after him. We see his home, and a large statue dedicated to him. But when it’s time to explain his significance in Chinese history, those interviewed are in a studio or office, and are people in America and Europe.

It is not until the end of the documentary that we learn that one of the people we met in China is a descendent of 左宗堂, who is now a 左宗堂 scholar, and was basically showing us his family history. But this is already far after there was a humiliating scene where the filmmakers gave him a fortune cookie: not knowing what it was, he asked if it was edible; upon biting down, he found the piece of paper inside. I assume the filmmakers did not bother to explain to him what the cookie was, just so they could get the reaction of him eating a piece of paper.

I was starting to get annoyed at that point in the documentary. It’s a silly way of showing that people in the East do not know about something that was obviously concocted in the West. Since I’m sure the filmmakers knew that already, they should have had one of their historians point that out, rather than humiliating someone over the fact that he didn’t know how to eat a fortune cookie, or that people did not know the Americanized 左宗堂雞. Hint: if it has American broccoli, people in the East probably will not recognize the dish as a Chinese dish.

It is not until the end of the documentary that it is revealed that the true origin of 左宗堂雞 is from Taiwan, originated by chef 彭長貴. We are taken to Taiwan for a much too short interview with 彭長貴 (who is now in his 90s) and his son, 彭鐵誠. Footage of chefs at 彭園 was edited with other cooking scenes in a way that it is not until 彭鐵誠 holds the plate and says, “This is how we make General Tso’s chicken,” that we know the footage was of the original being made.

There is no introduction at all to 彭園, which began as a restaurant founded by 彭長貴. It is now a restaurant corporation run by 彭鐵誠. The restaurant corporation is famous for its banquet halls and fine dining. Chef 彭長貴 has been called 湘菜之神 (god of Hunan cuisine) and 國宴御廚 (chef of the state banquet) by the media.

The story of 彭長貴 is glossed over and not given the recognition he deserves in the documentary. However, his story is not lost in Taiwan. The following videos are in Mandarin. This Taipei Times restaurant review of 彭園 includes a good summary of the story of 彭長貴 and his restaurants, in English.

The following is a documentary on the life of 彭長貴.

This news clip has footage of 彭長貴 (at age 96!) recreating his 左宗堂雞.

This news clip introduces the dish and includes interview with 彭長貴. Notice in the beginning the host says to the audience, “左宗堂雞 is a famous dish that you thought may have come from China, but it really is from Taiwan.”

The 左宗堂雞 that 彭長貴 made famous is a banquet-style, high-end dish. The following clips are cooking shows where chefs show home cooks how to recreate the dish (there’s a mix of Mandarin and Taiwanese in these clips).

This first clip has a funny alternate 左宗堂雞 origin story. This show focuses on making a dish for less than 59元 (roughly $2 USD).

This cooking show focuses on health, so the recipe has been slightly altered.

The following was produced by 新光三越 (Shin Kong Mitsukoshi department store) to teach viewers how to make 左宗堂雞 for Mother’s Day.

Overall, I found “The Search for General Tso” to be a good documentary. As a documentary about the history of Chinese people in America, the history of Chinese cuisine in America, and the history of Chinese restaurants in America, it does an exceptional job. It touches on all the important aspects of the greater culture that the dish represents. I recommend it to anyone who wants to learn more about the history of Chinese culture and Chinese cuisine in America. It is a documentary that needed to be made, to recount the origins and evolution of American Chinese cuisine, as well as the experience of Chinese immigrants in America. I especially enjoyed the clips with Cecilia Chiang, and it reminded me that I still need to watch the documentary about her, “Soul of a Banquet.”

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3 thoughts on ““The Search for General Tso”: expanding the Taiwan story

  1. This is an excellent review. I see that you critically look at how American filmmakers portray Chinese, and unfortunately not all American filmmakers would want to be sensitive and thoughtful. I also like all the video clips you provided.

  2. Interesting article. Thanks for sharing. My husband told me about this dish when we traveled to the U.S. last year. He even bought a General Tso sauce home. I found it funny and also wondered about this history of this sauce, since General Tso was well-known to the Chinese community obviously, but it puzzled me how he became a household name in America. Thanks for your sharing.

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