The Search for General Tso last week made the briefest of stops at the Terrace Theater, but the 75-minute documentary is still available via Comcast’s On Demand service. That’s fitting, since the movie’s starring sweet-and-sloppy fried chicken dish is nearly synonymous with takeout in the U.S.
Director Ian Cheney’s movie really consists of two different stories. There’s the eponymous trek back to China, which culminates in the unsurprising discovery that General Tso’s chicken is unknown in its supposed homeland. General Tso was a real person: The nineteenth-century Hunan general is credited with keeping China together. But he had nothing to do with the popular chicken.
At the 50-minute mark, after waving pictures of General Tso’s chicken at baffled Chinese and scrutinizing General Tso’s eating habits, the filmmakers finally reveal who’s responsible for the recipe. And as it turns out, they knew the answer all along – or at least they’ve known it since 2007, when Fuchsia Dunlop wrote up the saga of 1970s Taiwanese chef Peng Jia for the New York Times. General Tso’s is the rare folk dish with a clear and verifiable origin.
But once that forged quest is out of the way, Cheney can focus on the second, better, story. As interviews with Chinese restaurateurs across the country establish, General Tso’s has provided some kind of common ground for Chinese immigrants and U.S.-born fans of their cooking. It’s not a bulwark against racism or economic hardships, but the dish figures into a Chinese-American identity that didn’t exist a century ago.
The movie’s rote recitation of dates and statistics is dull, and the camera doesn’t dote on General Tso’s in such a way that you’ll start rummaging through your kitchen drawers for a Hot Mustard menu. But by chronicling the hard work and affection associated with a single dish, The Search for General Tso’s mounts an irrefutable case that “authenticity” is overrated.