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By now, I’m sure you’ve heard the news: Chef Peng Chang-kuei, the progenitor of General Tso’s chicken, died last week at age 98 of pneumonia in Taipei.
Upon the news hitting global newswires on Friday, my feeds were awash with remembrances—man, will someone end 2016 already? Thanks for teaching me it was okay to be weird, Chef Peng, et cetera—that treated this man as if he were a dear friend. It made sense: This dish is a fixture of a great number of American Chinese restaurants. I didn't know much about Peng, so I flocked to Wikipedia, believing he’d have a page of his own given his imprint on culinary history.
Surprisingly, he doesn’t. Instead, there’s a page for General Tso’s Chicken itself, yet the section detailing its origins is neatly bifurcated between the two men who lay claim to this dish.
The first section details Peng's narrative in the same way obituaries relay it—that he conceived of this dish in the 1950s while a chef in Taipei, and came to name the dish after a Qing Dynasty military leader. But a second section names chef T. T. Wang, who, in 1972, introduced the dish to America in a Manhattan restaurant. Wang would refer to his creation as “General Ching’s Chicken,” but it'd contain the same calculus of ingredients that one has come to ascribe to General Tso’s Chicken. Reading this gave rise to a host of questions. Who, really, lays claim to this dish? Is this a food with more than one author, contrary to what this past weekend's headlines suggest? And what, precisely, is the difference between General Tso’s and General Ching’s?
It's a history that's abstract and muddy, but elucidated somewhat in two key documents that are worth revisiting in the wake of Peng's death: journalist Jennifer 8. Lee's 2008 tome of Chinese-American culinary history, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, and 2014's The Search for General Tso by documentarian Ian Cheney (and produced by Lee, who features prominently in it). Both explain how New York’s flirtation with Chinese food began in the 1970s with restauranteur Michael Tong, who opened up a bevy of restaurants serving Hunanese food. One of his premiere chefs at Hunan Park was Tsung Ting Wang, a recent immigrant from China who'd later be nicknamed "TT." He put chunks of chicken in batter, and fried them in a brown sauce that was tart and sugary. It became the restaurant's staple dish.
The dish, which he termed General Ching’s Chicken, sold for $4.75. The restaurant was decorated with a four-star review from New York Times, with this dish cited as a particular highlight among the restaurant's offerings. It was the first of its kind to sell what we've come to know as General Tso's chicken, albeit under a different name.
But where'd Wang get this recipe? A few years before that, Wang had visited Taipei and eaten at Peng's Hunan Yuan restaurant. Crucially, Wang tasted a variant of the dish he'd later lay claim to that came without the fried, crispy coating. And it was decidedly more spicy than the one he'd later create, without a sweet counterweight. Wang, upon migrating to the States and coming under the tutelage of Tong, gave this dish sugar and vinegar. The American palette was sweet, he surmised, and most diners didn't respond to the dish's overwhelming spiciness.
As for the name General Ching's, its history is etymologically muddled, too. Wang intended for General Ching’s Chicken to serve as a tribute to General Zeng Guofan, the mentor of General Tso. Somehow, in a long game of telephone that went awry, Zeng became Ching. Lee writes that this is one "of those mysteries of Chinese-English transliterations.”
Later that decade, Peng himself came to New York and opened a restaurant of his own, the now-defunct Peng's Restaurant near the United Nations. He began selling his own dish under a different name—General Tso's. His entry to the States was mired in confusion: people believed that he was stealing Wang's dish, when, in fact, it'd been the other way around. Soon, this ballooned into a rivalry over who, exactly, could lay claim to being the father of this wildly popular dish.
History has vindicated Wang. A feature on ABC’s Eyewitness News in 1974, featuring Peng cooking the dish in his restaurant, effectively cast his legacy in amber, attributing him to the dish in the popular imagination of most Americans. (Archives of the original telecast are long gone.) Somewhere along the way, the name he gave to this dish fused with the the recipe Wang had iterated on.
Mentions of General Ching's Chicken taper off after the early 1980s. A 1983 New York Times review of a Connecticut restaurant would describe it as being doused in a “ping-ling hot sauce"; in a 1987 menu for Hunan Park, it is described in abstract terms as containing “chicken chunks with tingling hot sauce,” referring to Ching as "the renowned general of the Ching Dynasty trained the famous Hunan army.” Wang himself died of cancer at the age of 55, in 1983. His obituary is quite a wild read—it casually details him being kidnapped in the late 1970s before falling ill, yet, even in sickness, his love for cooking persisted, but General Ching’s Chicken isn’t mentioned once.