It’s a safe bet that if you didn’t get around to reading The New York Times’ Sunday magazine until dinner, you probably read it with a spring roll in one hand and a rice-strewn table of white Chinese food cartons in front of you. In a story titled “Hunan Resources,” aimed at edifying takeout chowers, a British food writer unveils the secret behind General Tso’s Chicken, staple of apartment-lobby menus everywhere (registration required).
Curious about the dish’s origins, Dunlop took the direct route: She went to China and asked. Only thing was, no one she met there had ever heard of it. And its flavor profile—mixing a sweet-sour sauce with hot peppers and chunks of fried chicken—isn’t native to Hunan cuisine, which favors oily and spicy over tart and sweet. But Dunlop kept digging, and finally she turned up Peng Chang-kuei, a former Nationalist Party banquet chef, who claimed to have invented the dish in the 1950s during a post-Mao exile in Taiwan.
When he arrived in 1973 to open Peng’s in New York City, he was one of several Hunanese chefs who sparked a craze for the new cuisine. New Yorkers, and soon the rest of the country, couldn’t get enough of this new hot and spicy cooking—after, of course, it had been sweetened up and tamped down for American palates. General Tso’s biggest fan? Henry Kissinger.
Still, with such popularity at stake, finding the definitive creation story can be a little tricky. This Washington Post story from 2002 reiterates the Peng story but adds a new twist: Michael Tong, owner of the Shun Lee Palace empire of Hunan and Szechuan restaurants, claims the dish for his own. According to Tong, the dish was created in the ‘70s by Tong’s former partner, T. T. Wang, who also put his stamp on orange crispy beef and Lake Tung Ting shrimp.