General Tso's Chicken: the most popular Hunanese dish in the USA

A plate of General Tso's Chicken, with a side of broccoli

Curator’s Note: What started out as a simple research assignment for the Sweet & Sour Initiative turned into an interesting culinary experiment when I discovered that museum intern Nina had never had the dish before. We had to arrange for her to try it and see what she thought. The Sweet and Sour Initiative is a long term project at the National Museum of American History to further explore the culture and history of Chinese in America through food and restaurants. In doing so, we hope to tell a broader story of immigration and acculturation for all Americans. -Cedric Yeh

Hi everyone. I’m Nina and I’ve been working on the Sweet and Sour Initiative for almost five months now and every day I get so hungry researching all the Chinese food history.

One day while I was filing away papers and reviews on General Tso’s chicken, it suddenly dawned on me that I have never tasted this dish before. I told some of the others in the office and they were shocked. I have come to realize it is a staple of Chinese food in America, but having grown up in Taiwan, the dish was foreign to me. Not only had I not heard of the dish before, but what I imagined the dish to be was completely different as well. The first time my friend told me about her favorite Chinese dish with its strange name, it sounded like it came straight out of my high school history class. I thought she was talking about something similar to tsuai-gi (醉雞), which is chicken marinated in rice wine.

So in order to see what all the fuss was about, I knew I needed to try it for myself. And try it I did—TWICE—to compare the experiences of take out and dine-in recipes.

General Tso
General Tso. Image credit: Jennifer Lee

The dish first appeared in the 1970s in New York City. Chef Peng Chang-Kuei is widely credited with creating the dish and coining its unusual name. He had created an earlier version in Taiwan in the 1950s after he fled the Chinese civil war on the mainland. He named his dish after General Tso, a famous military leader from Peng’s home province of Hunan, who legend says enjoyed chicken very, very much. Peng later came to the U.S. and opened a restaurant in New York. Even though years later he closed his shop and went back to Taiwan, the dish stayed and became a mainstay of Chinese food in America.

(Curator’s Note: The original Chef Peng dish has a clear sauce and contains chopped garlic and red peppers with a Chinese vegetable, not broccoli. Very different from the dishes Nina is about to mention.)

I began first with the takeout version of the dish. I prepared myself with a good Chinese movie, The Last Emperor, to go along with the food. The chicken came in a black plastic container and the rice came in the takeout boxes. I was a bit surprised. Only knowing Chinese takeout from the movies, I thought all takeout came in those signature red and white boxes. There was some broccoli in the dish, which complimented the color of the meat, red and green, almost like Christmas. The taste was sweeter than I expected, without much of the spiciness I expected from a Hunan dish.

I invited some Taiwanese students to accompany me to the restaurant tasting of General Tso’s. My companions were very surprised when I ordered this dish. When it arrived the first thing I noticed was the brightness, much brighter than the take out version with a lot more sauce. It too had some broccoli on the side. You could also see the hot pepper in the dish, a clear sign that this version retained a bit of the Hunan spiciness. The dine-in version boasted much larger pieces of chicken than the takeout version. The chicken itself was quite firm and thickly battered, so it was easy to tell where the batter ended and the meat began. Although everyone at the table seemed to like the dish, at the end of the meal it was the only dish that had leftovers.

Take Out
Tso chicken 1
Layout: Broccoli on the side. Came in plastic black containers. Rice came in the red/white takeout boxes.
Sauce: Slightly sweeter
Chicken: Can’t tell the difference of the batter and the chicken. The “meat” was very crispy and crunchy.

Tso chicken 2
Layout: Rice was served separately in little bowls.
Sauce: More spicy and sticky
Chicken: The batter was pretty thick, but chicken pieces are still visible.

So what did I think? It’s sweet and salty at the same time, with a tangy taste of spice. It goes well with rice and it reminds me of one of my favorite dishes back home, “sugar and vinegar chicken.” Unfortunately, I don’t think General Tso’s chicken has made it to the top my personal favorite dishes list, but I can see why the dish became so popular. And seeing as this dish is only found in the USA, I think I am going to have it a few more times before I leave.

Nina Mei Han Yang is an intern for the Sweet and Sour Initiative and the Division of Armed Forces History at the National Museum of American History.