“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.”


A first look at “The Chinese Takeout Cookbook”

randomhouseThis post is a few months overdue – Chinese New Year was back in February! I received “The Chinese Takeout Cookbook” by participating in Diana’s virtual Chinese New Year potluck. This won’t be a full review because I haven’t cooked every recipe. I might make cooking dishes from the cookbook an ongoing series. I did get a chance to look through the book and decided to share my impressions.

To start off, imagine my surprise when I got the book and it was sent directly from Random House. I’ve never received anything directly from a publishing house. Pretty cool!

coverThe book has ten chapters, the first being an introduction to various ingredients and tools that are needed. The last chapter has recipes for various basics, like stocks and sauces. The main recipes are divided between the other eight chapters.

There are little historical tidbits among the recipes. I like the term “American-Chinese” for the food in the cookbook. These are not the original Chinese recipes, but rather recipes that have evolved in America.

The recipes look simple and not overly complicated. I think it is ideal for a busy cook or a person who is new to Chinese cuisine. I’m looking forward to trying out recipes from the book. In particular, I really want to learn all the different sauces.

Taiwan restaurants on The Daily Meal’s “101 Best Restaurants in Asia 2013”

The Daily Meal has released a list of 101 Best Restaurants in Asia 2013. I was pretty excited from the description of the list because it included restaurants from 11 countries. Which restaurants from Taiwan made the list and where did they rank? Out of 101 restaurants, seven were in Taiwan. I had to do some searching to find the original names of the restaurants. I’m familiar with some of the restaurants and don’t know the others.

1. Din Tai Fung (Taipei, Taiwan)
I really don’t know why I was surprised when I saw 鼎太豐 at the top of the list. Truthfully there are corner 小籠包 stores that are better than 鼎太豐. But I do like 鼎太豐 because it is consistent and clean. Plus, I really like watching the chefs prepare the dough and make the 小籠包 – it’s awesome technique. 鼎太豐 has stores beyond Taipei, though. I have heard that the original store is the best, but it’s really hard to get a table there.

43. Tu Hsiao Yueh (Taipei, Taiwan)
度小月 is actually a 台南 institution. It is not originally from Taipei.

50. Nonzero (Taipei, Taiwan)
非零餐廳 serves primarily Western comfort food.

70. Osteria de Angie (Taipei, Taiwan)
Osteria by Angie
Italian food.

74. Seventy-two Beef Noodle Restaurant (Taipei, Taiwan)
七十二牛肉麵 (google+) (facebook)
Beef noodle soup is now a popular Taiwanese dish.

76. La Cocotte (Taipei, Taiwan)
la cocotte,taipei
Serves French cuisine.

86. Hiroshima (Taipei, Taiwan)
The restaurant is also known as Teppan Izakaya

I think it is a good list with a diverse variety of cuisines. I think it shows that Taiwan is a destination for all foods, not just Taiwanese food. The list was a topic in Taiwanese news broadcasts, here’s a couple to watch:

NTDTV 經典天下 episode 台灣基隆廟口小吃(下)

I didn’t realize the episode on 基隆廟口夜市 (Keelung temple entrance night market) from the show 經典天下 (The World of Classics) on 新唐人電視台 (New Tang Dynasty Television) was going to be two parts. I posted about the first part here. The episode explains the history of night markets, going all the way back to the Tang dynasty. It also contrasts night market culture to other countries. There are also interviews with foreigners in the night market. A major theme is the combination of tradition and modernity. There is some overlap between this episode and the prior one. The episode is in Mandarin, Taiwanese, and English with Chinese and English subtitles.

NTDTV 經典天下 episode 台灣基隆廟口小吃

Anthony Bourdain made his first stop in “The Layover” at 基隆廟口夜市 (Keelung temple entrance night market). The show 經典天下 (The World of Classics) on 新唐人電視台 (New Tang Dynasty Television) also has an episode on the market. The episode explains the history of the temple and the food. It also tells the stories of two vendors at the night market. The episode is in Mandarin and Taiwanese with Chinese and English subtitles.

Making Chinese tea eggs from “Appetite for China”

I decided to take part in a Chinese New Year virtual potluck and giveaway at Appetite for China. Participants will receive a copy of Diana’s cookbook, “The Chinese Takeout Cookbook,” and be entered to win a couple of prizes. I jumped at the opportunity to try another one of Diana’s recipes (I really like her Siracha garlic wings recipe) and am looking forward to checking out her cookbook! Many thanks to Diana for hosting this great virtual event and giveaway.

There were seven recipes from “The Chinese Takeout Cookbook” to choose from and I gave the Chinese tea eggs a try. 茶葉蛋 (or tea leaf eggs) were a major part of my childhood in Taiwan. I remember buying them at school for a snack. The smell reminds me of 7-11, where tea leaf eggs are always simmering. It is also a dish I have not been able to recreate at home, which isn’t good when I have a craving for it.

egg1One of the unique characteristics of tea leaf egg is the marbling pattern on the egg. This is created by cracking hard boiled eggs before simmering the eggs in the tea mixture. I think the first few eggs I cracked probably had more egg shell separate than I wanted, but I think I got the hang of it.

The only black tea I had on hand was Earl Grey tea. I suppose it was an appropriate choice since I left out the dried mandarin peel because I didn’t have any. Earl Grey tea is flavored with bergamont orange to imitate Chinese tea, so I guess it helped create the right flavor to the tea mixture. I did add black peppercorn. Since I cooked more eggs than called for in the recipe, I increased the amount of ingredients for the tea mixture.

egg2After about an hour of simmering, the kitchen started to smell exactly like how I remember tea leaf eggs smelling. The ingredients produced just the right balance of sweet and savory. I almost felt like I did not even need to eat the eggs, the ability to recreate the smell alone was a success.

I let the eggs simmer for a total of two hours before taking a few out for a try. The marbling pattern already formed on the surface, but the flavor was pretty light. The ends of the egg did not look as good as the sides. I’ll probably need to work on my egg cracking technique!

egg3I left the rest of the eggs in the pot (with the stove off) to soak up some more of the tea mixture. The marbling became more intense, and I could taste the tea mixture in the egg white. Yum! I also had an egg with some noodles. I’m so glad I tried the recipe and now I can make tea leaf eggs whenever I have a craving. It’s such a delicious snack!

I’m so glad Diana shared her recipe for tea eggs. I encourage you to check out Appetite for China and “The Chinese Takeout Cookbook” for this and other great recipes. The virtual potluck and giveaway ends on February 24, 2013.