After a tumultuous life that saw his most famous creation gain more recognition from Americans than Chinese, the man who created General Tso’s Chicken, Peng Chang-kuei, has passed away. He was 98.
Peng left the world with its most famous Hunanese dish, a culinary offering so beloved abroad that his own fame simply paled in comparison.
Born in Changsha in 1918, he rose from humble beginnings as a 13-year-old apprentice to serve as the official chef for the Nationalist government, responsible for state banquets in the period following World War II.
The origin of General Tso’s Chicken dates back to 1952 after Peng had fled to Taiwan in the wake of the Chinese Civil War. During a visit by US Seventh Fleet commander Admiral Arthur W. Radford, Peng exhausted his repertoire of dishes. Seeking a way to entertain his guests on the last day, Peng threw together a concoction of chicken cut into chunks, fried in oil, and served with a smattering of spices.
Radford was so impressed with the dish that he summoned Peng to tell him its name. Peng immediately responded by naming a famous 19th century general (one who happened to be Hunanese). And that’s how General Tso’s Chicken was born.
However, Peng’s decision to name his famous dish after a historical figure came to be a source of confusion. Although many traditional Chinese dishes are named after famous people, General Tso is not one of them, and unlike those dishes, Peng’s creation came to be embraced by an audience far removed from its Hunan origins.
After being adapted to suit American tastes, General Tso’s Chicken made its way in the seventies to New York City where it became an immediate success. The response was so positive that two Hunanese restaurants serving General Tso’s Chicken were recognized with four star ratings by The New York Times, its highest rating.
Unfortunately for Peng, his creation had moved on without him. By the time he arrived in NYC to open a restaurant of his own, General Tso’s Chicken had become completely unrecognizable from its original form.
“Originally the flavors of the dish were typically Hunanese — heavy, sour, hot and salty,” Peng revealed. “The original General Tso’s chicken was Hunanese in taste and made without sugar.”
Abandoned by his own invention, Peng was unable to find public recognition at a time when Hunanese cuisine was being celebrated across the world. “New Yorkers didn’t realize he was the real thing, and some treated him like he was copying,” a businessman working in the industry at the time told Salon.
Although Peng had high profile clients like Henry Kissinger, eventually New York City proved to be more than he could handle. “The pressures of Manhattan restaurant reality were too much for the brilliant teacher,” wrote food critic Gael Greene in 1973.
Fortunately, Peng would find success later on by opening a successful chain eatery called Peng’s Garden Hunan Restaurant in Taiwan, where it continues to be popular to this day.
Peng appeared to be destined for obscurity when a 2014 documentary called The Search for General Tso brought him back into the public spotlight.
In the end, although his dish may not be well known back in Hunan, Peng has ensured that Hunanese cuisine (in at least some form) will be appreciated around the world.
By Charles Liu
[Images via Cook Diary / Vanyaland]
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