'The Search for General Tso' gets to the bottom of the popular dish

If you’ve never had General Tso’s chicken or one of the approximately 1 billion derivative dishes, you haven’t lived. Even those of us who prefer chicken with garlic sauce or beef with broccoli have come across the general. Seriously, General Tso’s chicken is ubiquitous.


That’s why Ian Cheney’s documentary about the Chinese restaurant staple, The Search for General Tso, is so fascinating. Just how did this recipe and its myriad variations make it across the US?


As with all documentaries about deceptively simple subjects, The Search for General Tso seems to be about one thing but is actually about a much bigger topic. It only makes sense that there would be a story behind the food—assimilation—and that Cheney, who has a bunch of documentary credits under his belt, would delve into it.


That takes Cheney—who doesn’t appear in the movie, by the way—from New York to Missouri to Louisiana to California to China. First, all the interview subjects throw out their crazy theories about who General Tso was (a real dude, by the way). Then the movie takes a trip to China and the Hunan province, where General Tso was from, and where the food is spicy (and if you’ve eaten General Tso’s chicken, it’s not so spicy). And there we meet a descendent of the general who’s confused by the dish.


And then there’s a General Tso’s chicken in China that doesn’t resemble the American version at all. (There are lots of things named for the general, as it turns out.)


And that brings us to American history, and how Chinese immigrants assimilated—or more accurately, were prevented from assimilating—into American culture. The movie tracks Chinese immigration to the US beginning with the 1849 gold rush and gets to an important moment in our history, namely the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. It’s just what it sounds like, and for those of us with only a vague recollection of it from high school US history, Cheney gets into the nuts and bolts.


The most compelling story that comes from the Chinese Exclusion Act—at least in the movie—is the rise of Chinese restaurants and Chinese laundry. Immigrants had no choice but to open their own businesses because American business owners wouldn’t hire them. There’s also a fascinating work/aid system that Chinese immigrants brought with them, which still exists, to help new arrivals find work.


One curiously absent detail in The Search for General Tso is a depiction of the suffering Chinese immigrants had to endure. It almost seems like for the sake of expediency—the documentary is a brisk 73 minutes—there’s a glossing over of the hardships Chinese people had to endure in the US.


In the end, Cheney does get to the bottom of the mystery—who created General Tso’s chicken and why, and the answer can be summed up in a number: 1949. And of course, the story doesn’t end there. The Search for General Tso is worth the time, and it’s fun and engaging, even if it’s not the most filling choice on the menu.



Directed by Ian Cheney

The Screen

73 min.

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