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The Chef Who Created General Tso's Chicken Has Died

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But the ubiquitous dish lives on in the form of countless (mis)interpretations

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Peng Chang-Kuei (left), the creator of General Tso’s Chicken
The Search for General Tso

Try to keep yourself from sobbing into your bowl of soggy, sugary, and over-oiled fried chicken masquerading as authentic Chinese from Panda Express — Peng Chang-Kuei, best known as the chef behind General Tso’s Chicken — has died at age 98 in Taiwan.

Taiwan News reports that Peng passed away after a bout of pneumonia on Wednesday, with a whole bunch of background on the man behind the dish. Given the pervasiveness of sad takes on the dish in the Western world nowadays, some may find it surprising that Peng was a highly respected chef.

Born and trained in China’s Hunan province, Peng worked as a chef for China’s nationalist government from the 1920s onwards, cooking for the prime minister and then running banquets. Along with the Nationalists, he was effectively banished to Taiwan after the Chinese Communist Party defeated his bosses in the Chinese civil war.

It was in Taiwan that General Tso’s Chicken was born — and fittingly, it was when Peng was catering to American tastebuds that he created the dish. When catering to US Admiral Arthur W. Radford, Peng was looking to serve something new and devised the slightly sweet, spicy fried chicken concoction — and Radford heartily approved. The General Tso appellation came about on a whim when Peng was asked for the name of the dish and he offered up the name of Tso Shih-hai, a respected 19th century Chinese military leader from Peng’s home province.

From there, Peng brought the dish to the United States himself — America’s new diplomatic ties with China, courtesy of President Nixon, lent Chinese cuisine a new trendy status. In 1973, Peng opened his eponymous restaurant Peng’s on 44th Street in New York — with General Tso’s Chicken on the menu. Within a few years, it was being written up in the New York Times.

As a harbinger of what was to become of Peng’s famous dish, NYT critic Mimi Sheraton had one issue with Peng’s: “The big failing here is to temper seasonings to what the kitchen perceives to be the preferences of the Western palate.”

But like Radford, Sheraton approved heartily of Peng’s golden fried chicken creation. “General Tso's thicken was a stir‐fried masterpiece, sizzling hot both in flavor and temperature,” she wrote.

But Peng wasn’t the only person making his chicken dish — it surfaced at New York’s Shun Lee Palace, which the Times calls “Manhattan’s Original Fine-Dining Chinese Restaurant.” The restaurant ultimately outdid Peng’s, garnering a four-star Times review, while Peng ended up returning to Taiwan to run his own Hunanese restaurant chain.

It was from there that General Tso’s Chicken entered the canon of Americanized Chinese food. A 2014 documentary, The Search For General Tso’s Chicken traced the way that the dish (and others, such as chop suey) became so ubiquitous. That film points out that the dish is neither well-known in Hunan or anywhere in China, nor does it really even fit in with classic Hunanese cooking in which Peng was trained. (It’s generally served much sweeter than in Peng’s initial recipe.) Even in the USA, the history of the dish is hardly known, the film points out.

Peng watched that mass proliferation and Frankenstein-ization of his dish occur from afar — and he didn’t approve, calling it “crazy nonsense.” But even if he created a monster, he died successful. His Taiwanese restaurant chain Peng’s The Gourmet & Banquet lives on — and apparently still serves some form of General Tso’s Chicken.

Review: The Search for General Tso Is the Authentic Story Behind an Inauthentic Food [E]
Inventor of General Tso's Chicken dies in Taipei at age 98 [Taiwan News]
Restaurants: Peng’s, Wallys [NYT]
The Story Behind Manhattan’s Original Fine-Dining Chinese Restaurant [NYT]

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