Born in 1812 in Hunan province, Zuo Zongtang lived an unremarkable life until 1850, when at age 38 he took up the sword for his Qing dynasty masters and helped crush the Taiping Rebellion.
Zuo, also known as Tso Tsuntang, quickly became known as one of the Qing dynasty's greatest generals, ravaging not only the Christian-inspired Taiping rebels, but also bringing the pain to the Nian rebels before turning his attention (and fearsome army) toward Muslim rebels in the northwest.
In other words, General Tso was one bad dude.
How is it, then, that this warrior, this conqueror for the ages, has come down to us today via a frozen carton of VIP Sales Company, Inc. Tai Pei General Tso's Spicy Chicken? Mustn't the general have eaten the stuff — seasoned with the blood of his rivals, no doubt — by the helmetful on the field of victory? As China moved from a culture of dynastic rule to one of communist rule, wasn't the dish slowly removed from the political arena — domesticated, as it were, into a humdrum menu item? And once on the menu, the indignity of the supermarket freezer can't be far behind, right?
As it turns out, no.
A fair bit of scholarship has gone into the genealogy of General Tso's Chicken (most recently in The Fortune Cookie Chronicles by New York Times reporter Jennifer 8. Lee), and the consensus seems to be that the dish was a creation of the renowned Chinese chef Peng Chang-kuei.
Once in charge of preparing Chinese government banquets, Peng fled China when Mao Zedong came to power in 1949. He eventually made his way to New York, where in 1973 he opened a restaurant and began cutting his traditional Hunan cuisine with that trinity of mid-century American cooking: salt, sugar and cornstarch.
Much like its namesake, General Tso's Chicken went on from Peng's kitchen to conquer nearly every Chinese restaurant menu in the nation. Marshaling its blend of snap peas, carrots, broccoli and deep-fried chicken, the dish soon stood shoulder to shoulder with chop suey and crab rangoon. Together these brothers in arms formed a sort of American-Sino culinary fraternity that fed generations of Americans.
But those, it must be said, were the good old days. Today's carton of Tai Pei General Tso's Spicy Chicken has about as much in common with its august Hunanese roots as French toast has with Charles de Gaulle. Sweet as a vat of high-fructose corn syrup, flaccid as a crop of puréed sugar snap peas and gummy as a lukewarm Chicken McNugget, the dish (if you can call it that) emerges from the microwave a bubbling jumble of sticky poultry stewing in brown fluid — and it tastes even worse than it looks.
It's probably a good thing the real General Tso never got his belly around this stuff. Ruthless as the general was, he'd probably have used it against his enemies.
Seen a foodstuff you're too timid to try? Malcolm will eat it! E-mail particulars to email@example.com.