Damn you, Ian Cheney! Even though The Search For General Tso clocks in at a brisk 71 minutes, I dare any one of you to avoid salivating a minimum of 10 separate times whenever the famed “Chinese” delicacy is shown, or start gnawing on the pillow you were holding while stuck in some enchanting dream where the world is made out of fried, saucy nuggets of perfection – not that I had to clean up any drool puddles, or anything. Yes, documentarian Ian Cheney decided to embark on a sleuthy quest to uproot General Tso’s culinary legacy, traveling around the globe in search of an origin story, but what’s discovered paints a broader picture of Chinese immigration and their assault on American cuisine. Talk about the most delicious infiltration in American history!
Cheney’s biggest accomplishment isn’t discovering the inventor of America’s favorite General-themed chicken dish. Rather, it’s telling a story of ruthless discrimination that Chinese immigrants faced when turning to U.S. soil for new opportunities – and he does so through culinary translation. At the expense of horrible punnery, Cheney finds a way to “spice up” an international history lesson with the comforting flavors of garlic and chili, sneakily teaching viewers about the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 while under a hypnotic trance created by glistening, orangey pillows of happiness. Chinese food has developed its own culture here since immigrants found themselves out of work and looking for means of survival, and while most foodie experts already know our renditions of Beef Lo Mein and Shrimp with Lobster sauce are dumbed-down dishes geared for mass appeal, it’s still interesting to hear from actual native restauranteurs whose recipes were concocted to please American palates.
Themes of adaptation tell an entrepreneurial story for most successful Chinese immigrants who opened restaurants, forced into either that or a career in laundry maintenance when the Exclusion Act banned Asian workers from many jobs in an effort to send them home. This was the birth of Chinese food as WE know it, starting with an exotic dish dreamed up by genius Chinese chefs to draw in “adventurous” patrons – Chop Suey. Literally meaning “bits and pieces,” restaurants mixed cuts of meat with bland-tasting foreign veggies, and America went wild for the conception while crafty immigrants made a living by catering to local tastes.
In the face of hatred, oppression, and demonizing racism, Chinese immigrants simultaneously created a culinary reckoning and got back at their haters by conning unexperienced stomachs into eating generic, vanilla food while thinking it a luxurious treat. This mentality of adaption permitted the inclusion of otherwise hated immigrants into society, and also paved the way for creative dishes like Louisiana-inspired Chinese infusions (alligator Chinese dishes?), Cashew Chicken (breaded chicken and gravy to please Missourians?), and fortune cookies (a mysterious wafer to actual Chinese citizens).
But let’s be honest – you’re tuning into The Search For General Tso solely to learn about the titular dish, and with that in mind, Cheney again delivers. Tracing the famed General’s history back to the Qing dynasty, the origins of such a influential dish are commented on and pieced together by a bevy of different “specialists,” from a menu-obsessed Chinese knick-knack collector to a few of the very first Chinese restaurant owners. You’ll travel the world in search of the man who whipped up the first plate of General Tso’s chicken, you’ll meet him, and he’ll comment with confident cheekiness on how American restaurants have destroyed the flavorful, richly spiced dish he originally served to warriors. Broccoli? Scallions? The master chef LAUGHS in the face of such weak imitators (“This is all crazy nonsense”), as the dish was created to represent power, boldness, and a fiery military spirit – there’s no comparison to the cheap imitations we scarf down by the pound.
There’s a sweet irony that an order of General Tso’s carries, in that although the dish is originally a Taiwanese specialty created by a Hunan native, the popularized version of the dish is the least authentic bit of Chinese culture you can find. According to many restauranteurs, there’s “no such thing as authenticity” anymore concerning our Chinese food, as the “groovy sauce” that swept America can now be found in sandwich form, covering ribs, slathering tacos – more people know General Tso from his namesake dish than his military conquests. This documentary sheds light on many little factoids about the creation of General Tso’s chicken, giving viewers a little background about the meal they love so much.
That being said, I’ll admit that only true foodies with an interest in the subject should check out The Search For General Tso – to others, it might seem to be an inconsequential puff piece about a gimmicky topic. Those people don’t have a curious side for the culinary arts, though, and therefore I don’t want to know them.
The Search For General Tso reveals everything you need to know about the Americanized dish, tempting your tastebuds while sneakily teaching a history lesson or two along the way.