Finding a warm spot
General Tso’s Chicken did
in American hearts
I’ve never eaten General Tso’s Chicken. I was aware of the dish but it sounded more like a westernize abomination of Chinese food than actual traditional Chinese cuisine. I grew up in Vancouver all my life, where traditional Chinese food reigns supreme.
However after watching the documentary, “The Search for General Tso” (now available on Canadian Netflix) I realized the importance of the dish to Chinese Americans. This popular westernized chicken dish served as a catalyst to the proliferation of Chinese restaurants and helped Chinese immigrants earn a living, whether they lived in big metropolitan cities to blink and you miss it small town USA.
The documentary is produced by ex-New York Times journalist, Jennifer 8 Lee, who if you’re old enough to remember, declared a local Richmond restaurant the best Chinese eatery in the world outside of China in 2008.
I highly recommend watching the documentary, but it got me thinking, “Why do Americans love it so much?”
The only way to answer my question is to actually try the dish out. I didn’t expect to find it at high-end traditional places like Kirin or Sea Harbour. I did start to find General Tso’s Chicken at neighbourhood restaurants that do a fair share of take-out/delivery business.
I decided to check out Peaceful’s menu since the place is beloved by a bombastic American, Guy Fieri and it was convenient for my catch-up dinner with Speedy. Peaceful served General Tso’s Chicken, so off I went to find my answer.
Behold General Tso’s Chicken (左宗棠雞)! I didn’t think Peaceful’s version was the best possible execution of the dish, especially the chicken portion. The chicken was basically battered chicken balls. Unfortunately I ate more batter than chicken. However, the tangy spicy sauce was very good and addictive.
I get the appeal of pairing crispy chicken with a sweet, tart and spicy sauce. However what I don’t get is the broccoli. The sulphurous brassica flavour just clashed against the sauce. There was no harmony with the flavours.
Another thing I didn’t get was the purple rice. I think I was more perplexed by the rice than the General Tso’s Chicken, as I had low expectations for that dish. There was nothing wrong with rice. It did its job but it just seems so odd to eat Chinese food without plain white rice.
To complete the meal we decide to get a few traditional dishes I was more familiar with.
The Chilli Garlic Eggplant (魚香茄子) was our mostly veggie dish of the meal that contained chunks eggplant, and julienned bamboo shoots, cloud ear fungus and pork. I find that most Asian eggplants dishes tend to a bit greasy and this was case here. However the amount excess oil was not that bad.
This dish was stirred fried well. The sauce was very savoury with a touch of spice and tartness. I also like the texture and flavour absorption ability of the bamboo shoots and cloud ear fungus.
Our next dish was the Cumin Lamb Stirred Fried Noodles (孜然羊肉炒麵), which utilizes the in house prepared wide cut flat noodles that Peaceful is known for. The noodles were perfectly chewy and worked great for this Northern Chinese rustic dish. With the cumin, peppers and onions this dish was fragrant, spicy, savoury and very tasty.
Last we got the Sichaun Mah-Po Tofu (麻婆豆腐), which went perfectly with our aubergine hued rice. The tofu was very silky but I wish they were prepared in larger pieces. Overall the dish was very umami and had just the perfect level of spiciness.
Overall, our meal at Peaceful was good with the exception of the General Tso’s Chicken. Despite the poor version at Peaceful, I now understand why Americans love the dish. The chicken with the reddish multi-flavoured sauce is a very good combo. I just don’t get the addition of broccoli though.
With the exception of our table and our non-Chinese neighbours, I didn’t actually see that many General Tso Chicken orders flying out of the kitchen. Whether in Vancouver or else where in North America, I think General Tso’s Chicken presence on the a menu covers all the bases to ensure anybody can find something they are like, even if it doesn’t get ordered very much.
However more importantly and since you don’t just order one dish at a Chinese eatery, it can act like a gateway for some to try other more traditional items.
It may not be 100% Chinese and I definitely am not a fan of dish, but I absolutely respect the impact General Tso’s Chicken has made in the lives of Chinese immigrants and how it help expand the understand of Chinese cuisine amongst non-Asians.
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