Any stories you’ve heard about the famous Chinese war hero General Tso cooking up a wok of his signature chicken dish are hooey, writes Francis Lam (who left the flaming wreckage of Gourmet behind for Salon‘s greener pastures).

The dish, or at least the real version of it, was created by Peng Chang-kuei, a chef who simply named the dish after Tso. But its journey to America took a weird path, brought to the Chinese-food-crazy New York City of the ’70s by two competing restaurateurs who each studied with Chef Peng. Each wanted to put his own spin on the dish; one, Chef Wang, added a crispy batter to the chicken chunks and sweetened up the sauce. The dish, and the restaurant, was a phenomenal success, garnering a rare four-star review in the New York Times. Peng, noting all this in China, decided to try his own luck in New York, only to find himself viewed as copying his apprentices:

“His restaurant was still successful, and in the post-Nixon-goes-to-China Sinophilia, he counted among his fans Henry Kissinger. His star power fired the idea of General Tso’s chicken into our national consciousness, but it was chef Wang’s crispier, sweeter version that Americans fell in love with … and made our own, mutating with every new Chinese takeout restaurant from New York to Kansas to California,” writes Lam.

Image source: Flickr member pointnshoot under Creative Commons

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