America’s Love Affair with General Tso: “Searching for General Tso”

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Is this a story that needs to be told?  Not quite.  “The Search for General Tso” explores the origins of General Tso’s Chicken, one of America’s favorite Chinese restaurant items.  The documentary travels to Hunan Province in China; Taipei, Taiwan; San Francisco, California; New York City.  The documentary explains how menus in the 50,000 Chinese restaurants across America all have very similar items.

(By the way, Chinese food is very popular in Ghana.  The oldest restaurant was established in 1962.  I think it’s the Regal Restaurant in Osu.   Today there are over 20 restaurants in the Greater Accra Region.)

More importantly, it lulled me into learning something about Chinese-American history, namely how the Chinese survived the implementation of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.  For background, up to that point, most Chinese immigration into America occurred due to the California Gold Rush of 1848 and the building of the First Transcontinental Railroad.

This law and others that followed had several long-reaching implications including:

  • Limited further immigration of the Chinese — especially women
  • Those who were already in America were prohibited from gaining US citizenship which made them “permanent aliens” and always at risk of deportation
  • Prohibited the Chinese from being employed and compelled them to enter two main areas where they could start their own businesses: laundry service and restaurants
  • Made it illegal for Chinese to marry whites
  • Geary Act: “The law required all Chinese residents of the United States to carry a resident permit, a sort of internal passport. Failure to carry the permit at all times was punishable by deportation or a year of hard labor. In addition, Chinese were not allowed to bear witness in court, and could not receive bail in habeas corpus proceedings.”

These Chinese Exclusion Acts were finally repealed 60 years later in 1943 with the Magnuson Act when China became a US ally in World War II.  This law allowed the Chinese already residing in the US to finally become citizens and allowed a national quota of 105 Chinese immigrants per year.

Beyond the history of the Chinese in America, the documentary explains the origins of other popular dishes such as Chicken with Cashews and Chop Suey.  It also touches upon how Chinese food has become an integral part of Jewish Christmas celebrations.

Anthony_Bourdain_No_reservations_S8_R-114032-9_movie_packOver the last decade or so, there’s been a renaissance focused on how food is grown, prepared, and cooked in America. Television shows such as “Top Chef”, Andrew Zimmern’s “Bizarre Foods”, Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations”, highlight how restaurant food is changing in America.  This trend has made foodies of huge segments of Millenials and Gen Xers and spurred food truck entrepreneurship across America in New York, Los Angeles, Austin and even San Diego.  (Best Food Trucks of San Diego 2014)

I know I’ve tried Scandinavian, Ethiopian, Iranian, and Vietnamese cuisines in search of something new and even attempted to visit as many semi-affordable Michelin rated restaurants in New York.

And yet, despite this trend toward finding the new new or new exotic thing, somehow Chinese food remains a popular yet unhip cuisine.  Could it be that cooking to pander to American tastes has devalued it?  Or, is there some long-lasting fear that Americans will be exposed to delicacies that only lie in their imaginations, e.g. dog, cat, rat?

Just to clarify, Yes, the Chinese eat some exotic foods.  By now, foodies should be comfortable eating pigeon, frog, and all manner of shellfish.  The truly exotic foods, e.g. insects and dog, can only be found in East Asia.

I encourage foodies who have settled into consuming their weekly dose of General Tso’s Chicken to find a banquet-style Cantonese restaurant in any large metropolitan area and try something “live”!

By the way, these aren’t necessarily the same ones listed in the “Best of Chinese” restaurant lists mentioned in popular magazines/websites.  Just like I wouldn’t trust a Brit to judge the best Creole cooking, you shouldn’t trust a non-Chinese person to rate the best Chinese restaurants.  Look for a place where the Chinese-looking people outnumber everyone else.

One of my favorites: Shrimp that is boiled minutes before served =)

One of my favorites: Shrimp that is boiled minutes before served =)

Another favorite: Lobster (or crab) with peppers and scallions

Another favorite: Lobster (or crab) with peppers and scallions

I encourage you to check out the movie if you want to learn more about one of America’s most popular dishes.  You can find it in theaters or for rent on iTunes.

For more information, please check out “Soul of a Banquet”, the documentary on Cecilia Chang who operated the first “authentic” Chinese cuisine.  It is directed by Wayne Wang.

Soul of a Banquet

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