The New York Times Magazine has an interesting story about General Tso’s Chicken, probably the most famous “Hunanese” dish that most people from Hunan Province (or anywhere else in Mainland China, for that matter) have never heard of:
General Tso’s chicken is named for Tso Tsung-t’ang (now usually transliterated as Zuo Zongtang), a formidable 19th-century general who is said to have enjoyed eating it. The Hunanese have a strong military tradition, and Tso is one of their best-known historical figures. But although many Chinese dishes are named after famous personages, there is no record of any dish named after Tso.
The real roots of the recipe lie in the chaotic aftermath of the Chinese civil war, when the leadership of the defeated Nationalist Party fled to the island of Taiwan. They took with them many talented people, including a number of notable chefs, and foremost among them was Peng Chang-kuei. Born in 1919 into a poverty-stricken household in the Hunanese capital, Changsha, Peng was the apprentice to Cao Jingchen, one of the most outstanding cooks of his generation. By the end of World War II, Peng was in charge of Nationalist government banquets, and when the party met its humiliating defeat at the hands of Mao Zedong’s Communists in 1949, he fled with them to Taiwan. There, he continued to cater for official functions, inventing many new dishes.
When I met Peng Chang-kuei, a tall, dignified man in his 80s, during a visit to Taipei in 2004, he could no longer remember exactly when he first cooked General Tso’s chicken, although he says it was sometime in the 1950s. “Originally the flavors of the dish were typically Hunanese — heavy, sour, hot and salty,” he said.
The story also includes a recipe. Wikipedia atrributes these Chinese names to the dish: 左公雞, Zuǒ Gōng Jī; or 左宗棠雞, Zuǒ Zōng Táng Jī.
We think we remember seeing General Tso’s Chicken on the menu at Di Shui Dong not too long ago. Any other Shanghai sightings to report?
Image by Lall.
Thanks for the tip, Mr. Tai!