The Search for General Tso
Film Review by Kam Williams
Culinary Documentary Explores Derivation of Delectable Chinese Dish
General Tso‘s Chicken is the most popular takeout dish ordered by American diners. But who was General Tso? Was he actually a military hero, or was his title merely honorary, a la that of “Colonel” Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame?
Was he even the originator of the delectable entrée that bears his name, or was the ingenious recipe created by his wife or a cook? What are its ingredients? When was it introduced to the United States? Why has it proved so popular with the American palate? And are the Chinese as fond of the sweet and spicy fried fare?
These are among the intriguing questions posed by The Search for General Tso, a culinary documentary any Chinese food lover is likely to find fascinating. The picture was written and directed by its host/narrator, Ian Cheney, whose dogged, globe-spanning quest for answers led from Brooklyn to Asia and back around the U.S.
Along the way, we learn that there was, indeed, a General Tso, a legend who distinguished himself on the battlefield in the 19th Century towards the end of the Qing Dynasty. However, his clueless descendants have no idea how their esteemed ancestor came to be associated with the unfamiliar dish, since it is a very modern invention traceable to Taiwan in the 1960s. Without ever being introduced to mainland China, it crossed the Pacific Ocean a decade or so later, taking the States by storm, starting with San Francisco.
Besides unearthing these and other intriguing tidbits, intrepid Cheney devotes his time to tracking down and interviewing chefs claiming to be the pioneer who first put General Tso’s on the menu. Of course, he also devours many mouth-watering morsels of the honey-glazed chicken chunks, too, which is exactly what you’ll be craving as the closing credits roll.
The cinematic equivalent of an entertaining encyclopedic entry about the most irresistible offering on today’s Chinese takeout menu!
Excellent (4 stars)
In English and Mandarin with subtitles
Running time: 72 minutes
Distributor: IFC Films / Sundance Selects