Every day, from lunch to suppertime, dare I infer that millions of gastro-influenced Americans drift into Chinese Restaurants across this fair land. As you, I, or they stare through the plexiglass of the water heated display and fight the steam that blisters our fore arms as we reach to get our deep fried crab rangoons? Do you make room on your plate beside of your egg roll and ham fried rice for the General Tso’s chicken? On every occasion I find myself wondering to whom do I owe tribute for this delicious spicy chicken dish that I am eating? Did you ever think about who the real General Tso actually was? Was he real or was he just a name that popped into the head of a Chinese-American line cook? Well, you might not but I wanted to know.
I can bet that 1 in a 1,000 of you well educated people know the man whom General Tso’s Chicken is in reference to was actually a Chinese military leader from the Qing Dynasty named Zuo Zongtang. He was born in 1812 to a poor family in the Hunan province of China. In his youth he failed his court exams multiple times which was a terrible disgrace to him and his family. So he returned home with wife and devoted himself to his studies. He took up silkworm and tea farming of all things. All things changed in 1850 when he was 38 years old. During the Taiping Rebellion, the gentle farmer decided that he would lay down his garden spade for a sword. Silkworm farmer Zuo Zongtang became…..General Tso. Well not literally. His name was still Zuo Zongtang and he started out as the secretary for the governor but never-the-less he was on his way. There is an old saying that says that ‘war makes a man’…well war didn’t make Tso, Tso made war. He got 5,000 soldiers to come forth to fight. SO in all actuality I guess you really could say that Tso made war and war made Tso. For the rest of his life, he would wield a sword, becoming one of the most important military commanders in Chinese history and respected Generals in combat.
So knowing that, you are probably wondering, how did a great war veteran who became the Viceroy of Liangjang (one of China’s highest titles) before deciding to take one more commission as General. Well as many of you that grew up in America in the 50s, 60s and 70s can acclimate, Chinese restaurants were popping up all over the country. They even had a Chinese restaurant on the Andy Griffith show. Supposedly here is how it happened: two men from the Hunan province opened up a Chinese restaurant in New York city back in 1972 and one of the 4 ‘main attractions’ that they had on their menu was…yep you guessed it…’General Tso’s Chicken. This deliciously sweet, yet slightly spicy deep fried chicken party in your mouth was born. And even though the dish may bear his name, the General never got to taste the dish. The great warrior of the Qing dynasty who killed thousands upon thousands. The man who subdued thousands of rebels and up-risers while carving his name into Chinese history by the point of a sword never knew that his name would be misspelled upon Americanized Chinese buffets and take out joints all across North America….for our culinary delight. I am forever thankful for the inventive expatriate Chinese chef who awarded him with his culinary name to fame. I will salute you next time I pick up my chop sticks General Tso.