Chinese-Americans constitute just 1.2% of the U.S. population, yet there are Chinese restaurants in just about every town in the country, estimated to outnumber McDonalds locations by a three to one margin.
This is one of the more startling revelations in The Search for General Tso, Ian Cheney’s enlightening 2014 documentary on the history of Chinese food in the United States and how little it has in common with the food people in mainland China actually eat. The title refers to a specific ubiquitous dish consisting of deep fried chicken covered in a viscous, sugary sauce with just a touch of spiciness, and the central question is who the heck was General Tso and where did his chicken come from.
Not to spoil the ending, but Cheney eventually finds the answers. In fact, Peng Chang Keui, the chef they identify as the originator of General Tso’s Chicken, died yesterday at the age of 98. His passing (and this AVClub write-up about him) is the reason I sought out The Search for General Tso earlier this morning. Luckily, I didn’t have to look very far since the documentary is currently on Netflix.
I have a special interest in this subject because I adore Chinese food and have pretty much ever since I was old enough to turn away from happy meals and embrace this new (well, new-to-me) thing called Kung Pao Chicken. While that is my go-to meal at Chinese restaurants, I have other favorites. I actually had General Tso’s Chicken last weekend, and went back to the same restaurant to try their Chicken with Garlic Sauce for lunch today. The restaurant has a fairly generic name (Chopstix). Their interior is littered with signifiers of Chinese culture, such as little statues depicting figures foreign to most average Americans. The menu is displayed above the counter while the people behind the counter, all of whom appear to be part of the same family, speak broken English at best.
In short, it’s just like most other Chinese restaurants I’ve been to in my life. However, before Search for General Tso I was largely ignorant to the historical and cultural reasons for why that is. Turns out, there is a considerable amount of dramatic irony behind all of this (e.g., the real General Tso of the 1800s was a proponent of maintaining Chinese cultural and values, and now his name is attached to a meal which is anything but Chinese) as well as a sobering reminder of our deeply disturbing history of xenophobia. The reason the Chinese immigrated to America (originally by way of San Francisco) is the Gold Rush, but the reason those immigrants moved almost exclusively into opening their own laundering businesses and restaurants is because we passed a law, i.e., The Chinese Exclusion Act, forbidding them from doing anything else.
Sometimes our history really, really sucks.
Cheney, who is never seen nor heard in Search (no Morgan Spurlock/Michael Moore grandstanding here), tackles the subject as a search for answers which leads to larger truths about the Chinese immigrant experience in America. Talking head segments with university historians and economists, assorted experts on Asian cuisine and actual Chinese restaurant owners, both big (ma and pop’s from Arizona to Missouri to New York) and small (the co-founder of PF Changs) provide the meat of the documentary while delightful man/woman on the street segments fill in the edges with colorful commentary. There’s even a section which covers the seperation of Taiwan and China, a subject most Americans could probably use a refresher on considering the confused domestic but eneraged international response to President-elect Trump’s recent call with the President of Taiwan.
The most purely entertaining segments might be when the documentary team tours China and Taiwan, showing the locals pictures of General Tso’s Chicken and recording several priceless reactions (one older woman laughs at the site of it). Plus, you’ll never look at a fortune cookie the same way after you’ve seen a Chinese man register his complete confusion over what the hell they just gave him (e.g., “Is it edible?”). However, the most emotionally engaging material comes from the stories of perseverance told by various restaurant owners, often flanked by a younger son or grandson serving as an interpreter. One such owner, the originator of Cashew Chicken, recalls how the citizens of Missouri actually blew up his restaurant in protest before it ever opened, but then changed their minds when they finally tried his food, proving that the path to America’s heart is often through our stomach, just as long as you’re willing to compromise and cater your food more to our liking.
At just over 80 minutes long, Search for General Tso likely could have dug a little deeper, shined a bit more of a light on the lonely experience of Chinese-Americans operating restaurants in towns where they are quite often the only Chinese people around. It could have probed a little harder to highlight any lingering ill will certain chefs might feel over having lost complete control over their creation. Both of those elements are referenced and acknowledged, but the documentary could have done more with it.
Those are but minor quibbles. Search for General Tso is an ultimatley excellent documentary, likely serving as a gateway for anyone with a passion for the material but confusion over where to start. From here, you can circle out and explore any number of books which explore the same history in more detail.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Watch it. Love it. Then go eat some Chinese food, more fully aware of the xenophobia which made the food possible in the first place and the completely random history behind most of the dishes on the menu.