When I went to live in Hunan in 2003, I found that everyone knew about General Tso—the formidable Hunanese general Tso Tsung-t’ang, who subdued the restive northwest of China in the 19th century—but blank faces greeted me whenever I asked about his chicken. I was mystified. How was it that this scrumptious concoction of lightly battered chicken slices tossed in a piquant sweet-sour sauce had become the most famous dish of a Chinese province that completely disowned it?
It was only when I visited Taiwan a year later that the mist cleared. There I met Peng Chang-Kuei, a legendary Hunanese chef who’d fled to Taiwan with the defeated Kuomintang government at the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949 and was now in his eighties. And on the menu of his Taipei restaurant was the dish zuo zong tang ji (Tso Tsung-t’ang’s chicken). According to Peng, he invented it in the 1950s as an homage to the intense spicy, sour, and salty flavors of his home province. Later, in the 1970s, he took it, along with his restaurant Peng’s, to New York City, where he tweaked the recipe by adding sugar as a concession to American tastes. Americans loved it, and a legendary dish was born.
Fuchsia Dunlop is the author of Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking (W.W. Norton, 2013)_