Naika Reviews “The Search for General Tso”

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What started out as a query about the origins of General Tso’s Chicken evolved into a full-fledged exploration on both the dish’s namesake and the struggles of the Chinese-American immigrant community in Ian Cheney’s excellent documentary “The Search for General Tso.”

Collaborating with Chinese-American journalist Jennifer 8 Lee, Ian Cheney’s film explores the American love affair with General Tso’s Chicken in a very intriguing way. Instead of going for the jugular about the dish’s origins, it starts with the man himself, Qing Dynasty general Zuo Zongtang from Hunan Province, and his status in history.  This is fleshed out as Cheney and the gang travel across Hunan, where they soon encounter the fact that General Tso’s Chicken is virtually unheard of in Mainland China.  If that’s the case, how can anyone explain why the dish is so famous in America?

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This question sets the tone for the film, as we not only observe how essential the restaurant business was for the livelihoods of America’s often marginalized Chinese diaspora, but we also see the importance of how the changing attitudes and tastes of Americans throughout the last 90 years created the environment that allowed dishes like General Tso’s Chicken to thrive.  This is followed up with a very nice feel-good factor as we hear various testimonials from both authors and patrons alike, illustrating how much of an impact the Chinese restaurant scene has had on the lives of everyday Americans.

In the film’s final third, we get to the meat of the matter as Cheney hashes out who exactly invented the dish and how it found itself in the States.  Playing out like a foodie detective story with multiple accounts of what took place, the last act becomes the most entertaining and eye-opening.  This is especially true given that so many factors played a part in the emergence of General Tso’s Chicken, including television and presidential politics.  This all culminates in a tantalizing recreation of the dish, which will make even its most harshest critics drool.

Ian Cheney’s “The Search for General Tso” is a fun yet touching look at what many believe to be America’s favorite dish.  Although the driving force of the film is food-related, what makes it stand out to me is how well it paints the portrait of an often under-appreciated group of people behind the kitchen.  I for one enjoy a bit of Chinese fast food every now and then (mainly Kung Pao Chicken), but after seeing this doc, I certainly feel that I’m less fussy about how in-authentic an Americanized Chinese dish can be, since it’s not only a sign of what it takes to survive sometimes in a harsh country, but that it’s also served by folks who probably have a life story that isn’t that far away from my own, or my family.  If that’s the take-away that Cheney had in mind for his viewers, then the pats on our collective bellies are well deserved because this doc truly hits the spot.

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