The iconic General Tso's chicken.
Food

General Tso’s chicken is not from China

Jul 03, 2018

General Tso's chicken is perhaps the single dish most associated with Chinese food in the U.S. And many associate it with Hunan cuisine, since it first appeared in a Hunan restaurant in New York City.

But the dish doesn't come from Hunan, or China, even. General Tso's chicken was an invention from a Taiwanese chef who adjusted his version of Hunan cuisine for the American palate.

Hunan food in America is vastly different from China's Hunan. The latter's food is often compared to that of Sichuan, another southern province known for its tantalizing spices. But Hunan’s cuisine is considered to be far hotter.

Where Sichuan has a tendency to use dried or preserved chilis, Hunan chefs lean towards fresh chilis—which create a much more intense sensation.

American Hunan dishes though, are not spicy at all and are more gloopy in texture.

American Hunan dishes though, are not spicy at all and are more gloopy in texture.

To dig into the beginnings of Hunan food going to the U.S., there’s perhaps no better person to ask than David R. Chan. Chan is a Los Angeles-based Chinese food aficionado who has eaten at over 7,000 Chinese restaurants in America since the early 1950s. An attorney and accountant by trade, Chan meticulously logs the restaurants he has eaten in a giant spreadsheet.

Goldthread: What were the beginnings of Hunan food in the U.S.?

Chan: Luckily, the introduction of Hunan food is extremely well-documented, unlike the beginning of other past food trends. A lot of it was “faux Hunan food” in that it was made by Taiwanese intermediaries, who were over two decades removed from the original Mainland cuisine. It also wasn’t being prepared for an audience looking for the real thing.  

But it was 1972, and President Nixon had made his historic visit to China. Americans were captivated by the trip and their attention turned to Chinese food.

Later that year, an enterprising Taiwanese restaurateur opened up Hunam Restaurant on Second Ave. near the United Nations, touting this unheard of regional style as being superior to the existing choices.

Chili fish head, a classic Hunan dish.
Chili fish head, a classic Hunan dish. / Photo: Shutterstock

It got glowing reviews from the top food writers, Hunam captured the imagination of New York City, and became the Chinese restaurant to go to. 

That success was followed in the next two years by Uncle Tai and Uncle Peng, and Hunan cuisine became so popular it was served at hundreds of restaurants in New York City—no other city could come close to saying that. Within a decade, Hunan-style food became the most popular regional Chinese cuisine in the U.S. 

Still, this was Faux Hunan, as demonstrated by Uncle Peng’s founder, Chef Peng—the inventor of General Tso’s chicken.  

The General Tso’s chicken?

Yup. General Tso’s chicken was unheard of in Hunan, but was invented as an authentic dish in honor of Hunan by Chef Peng at his restaurant in Taipei.

General Tso’s chicken has become the single most popular Chinese dish in the United States, except in California and Hawaii and perhaps a few other places where the dish has been preempted by orange chicken.

When Chef Peng set up shop in Manhattan in the mid-1970s he brought that dish with him.  However, that dish was almost immediately mutated as the scores of Hunan restaurants opening up around New York altered the dish such that it bore no resemblance to the original.  

As chronicled in the movie The Search For General Tso, General Tso’s chicken has become the single most popular Chinese dish in the United States, except in California and Hawaii and perhaps a few other places where the dish has been preempted by orange chicken.

Chili duck, Hunan-style.
Chili duck, Hunan-style. / Photo: Shutterstock

People must have been more accustomed to Cantonese food, from the earlier wave of Guangdong migrants into the U.S.

The repeal of Chinese exclusion in America marks the dividing line between old time rural Cantonese and newer forms of Chinese food. The late 1960s saw the first sizable migration from China to the United States in over 85 years, with the new immigrants coming primarily from Hong Kong and Taiwan, as the U.S. and the PRC had no diplomatic ties.

Some portion of the Taiwanese migrants of the late 1960s and 1970s headed to New York City, as a small Taiwanese community affiliated with the Chinese mission to the United Nations had been established there.

The version of Chinese food these migrants brought with them was one step removed from the original.

Note that while these Taiwanese generally had their roots in Mainland China and its various regional cuisines, it had been two decades since the evacuation to Taiwan, so the version of Chinese food these migrants brought with them was one step removed from the original.

Then, not unlike the arrival of Cantonese food to American decades before, adjustments were made to take into account the culinary tastes. While the Taiwanese who had fled from the mainland had various regional backgrounds, the restaurants they opened up in mid- and upper Manhattan in the late 1960s generally were Shanghai and Szechuan-style, reflecting the pre-existing presence of those cuisines.

What did the menus of these early American Hunan restaurants look like?

Actual Hunan dishes are typically spicy, with bright fresh chilis.
Actual Hunan dishes are typically spicy, with bright fresh chilis.

A peek at an early version of the Hunan menu is quite revealing. It includes Hunan-style sliced leg of lamb, General Ching’s chicken (their version of General Tso), Lake Tung Ting shrimp, Hunan beef, Hunan honey ham, spicy crispy whole sea bass, Hunan preserved duck, and shredded lamb tripe.

It’s easy to see how these dishes captured the imagination of New Yorkers, even if the flavors were adjusted for a largely non-Chinese customer base.

When did “real” Hunan-style food by Hunan immigrants come to the States?

Taking into account the lack of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and China until 1979, and the fact that the initial immigration from China to the U.S. came from places like Shanghai and Guangdong province, I didn’t notice any real Hunan restaurant openings in the U.S. until the 1993 opening of Charming Garden in Monterey Park.

For years it was the only Hunan restaurant in town. To my knowledge, the first authentic Hunan restaurant didn’t show up in New York until probably ten years ago.

Additional reading:

From Canton Restaurant to Panda Express: A History of Chinese Food in the United States, Haiming Lu