“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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Finally caught up with BBC’s “Sherlock”

I know BBC started airing “Sherlock” in 2010. I know it made a Benedict Cumberbatch a much watched actor with a strong following. I know “Sherlock” has been well received. I just did not have the time to watch a single episode of the series. There’s only so much time in a day, and there’s so much out there to consume already. It was my pop culture blind spot. But it’s a blind spot no more, because I have now watched all three seasons.

To celebrate Sherlock’s 2014 Primetime Emmy wins, PBS announced it was streaming all episodes of Season 3 (until September 25, 2014). Thankfully I had time to finally experience the series. I found all three seasons on Netflix and started watching. It wasn’t until later I found out that even the episodes on Netflix were only made available recently. So I suppose I jumped in at the right time since “Sherlock” is now available where I can watch it.

I’m not sure when I first learned about the stories of Sherlock Holmes. I do remember my parents mentioning them when I was young. In Chinese, Sherlock Holmes is 福爾摩斯 (I know it sounds nothing like Holmes, but that’s for another post). I remember reading a few stories when I was young. I also remember watching some episodes of “Sherlock Holmes,” the series starring Jeremy Brett, on PBS. The only impression I have of that series is that it seemed rather dark.

I did watch some of the first season of “Elementary,” the updated Sherlock Holmes series on CBS. Unfortunately I lost track of it. Maybe the episodes will show up on streaming media so I can catch up. I did become a bit tired of the narcissistic version of Sherlock Holmes in “Elementary,” so it would be interesting to see how that developed.

I am completely enamored with “Sherlock.” It is witty and funny and a whole lot of fun. The actors and actresses are a delight to watch and really pull the audience into this particular world of Sherlock Holmes. I do like the socially awkward, but slowly becoming human, Sherlock Holmes. I also like the lively John and Mary Watson. I really like the caring, but still caustic, Mycroft Holmes. I’m completely terrified of the creepy Moriarty. This entirely updated version with modern technology is an absolute delight. I also really like the music and graphics. Ok, fine, I like it all.

“Sherlock” also gives me a glimpse of London. I was supposed to go to London on business around this time last year. The trip was canceled at the last minute so I didn’t end up going. Hopefully I’ll still be able to visit on my own at some point.

Now like everyone else, I’m waiting for Season 4. I’m not dismayed, as undoing this blind spot has given me a chance to go back and revisit Doyle and the original Sherlock Holmes stories. Digging through my books also resulted in a collection of Donne poems that I’m curious to revisit. It has also opened my eyes to the wonderful talents of one Benedict Cumberbatch. I’m particularly looking forward to “The Imitation Game,” which is scheduled for release on November 21, 2014.

I first learned about Alan Turing in my computer science courses. He is known for developing an early form of the computer and breaking the Enigma code. Although he died in 1954, his story continued this year when he finally received a royal pardon. I’m really excited to see his story brought to life through film.

Now, hopefully I have time to get through the first season of FOX’s Sleepy Hollow since all episodes are available on Hulu and a new season will be starting soon.

Yes, I know Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Mison (who portrays Ichabod Crane on Sleepy Hollow) were both in Parade’s End.

No, I haven’t had the time to watch it.

NTDTV 經典天下 episode 台灣包種茶

The show 經典天下 (The World of Classics) on 新唐人電視台 (New Tang Dynasty Television) has released an episode about 台灣包種茶. 包種茶 is a type of Taiwanese tea. The episode also explains the differences between teas harvested during different seasons. The process of tea making is hard work! It looks like this may be one episode in a series on the different teas of Taiwan. I’ll post the others when I see them. This episode is in Mandarin and Taiwanese with Chinese and English subtitles.

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.

NDTDV 經典天下 episode 台灣小吃 米食篇(2): 打鐵,肉圓,芋粿巧

打鐵 is striking iron and is introduced through the tools used in growing and harvesting rice. The 肉圓 described in this episode is different from the 肉圓 in a prior episode. This episode is about 肉圓 from 新竹, while the previous episode was about 肉圓 from 彰化. 芋粿巧 is a steamed taro cake, where taro is wrapped in dough with rice flour. The episode is in Mandarin and Taiwanese with Chinese and English subtitles.

牡丹亭 (The Peony Pavilion) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

I first read about the staging of “The Peony Pavilion” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from an article on NPR. The original opera can take roughly 22 hours. This adaptation focuses on the love story and takes roughly one hour. An archived video of the livestream of The Peony Pavilion can be seen on the museum website. The video has English subtitles. I wish there were Chinese subtitles as well since I find it hard to grasp the words in opera. I do not think this is a characteristic of Chinese operas – it is difficult to understand words when they can be held in any length to match music. I did like watching the movements of the actors, especially their hands and footsteps.