The Search for General Tso

Directed by Ian Cheney

From New York City to the farmlands of the Midwest, there are 50,000 Chinese restaurants in the U.S., yet one dish in particular has conquered the American culinary landscape with a force befitting its military moniker—“General Tso’s Chicken.” But who was General Tso and how did this dish become so ubiquitous? Ian Cheney’s delightfully insightful documentary charts the history of Chinese Americans through the surprising origins of this sticky, sweet, just-spicy-enough dish that we’ve adopted as our own.


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  • ★★★★½ review by Waiching Liu on Letterboxd

    Going into this, I knew immediately that I would probably end up enjoying this documentary; being Chinese myself and enjoying Chinese cuisine, as well as other cuisines in general, just reading the synopsis for this whetted my appetite for what was to come.

    In this food-based feature-length feature, The Search For General Tso seeks to delve into its origins and history of how and where this General Tso's Chicken came about. It is here where America's love affair with it first began and its so-called complicated relationships with anything that is 'exotic' was at first something that was alien to them. General Tso wasn't some mystical figure from Chinese folklore or mythology - he was a real person who existed & lived in 19th century China & led the Qing Dynasty army in one of the bloodiest civil wars.

    The recipe itself consists of soy sauce, rice wine, rice wine vinegar, sugar, cornstarch, red chillies & garlic with deep fried battered dark chicken pieces & broccoli.

    I've never ordered or had General Tso's chicken whenever I dined or ordered takeout from a Chinese restaurant, like ever; it's just that it is a dish that is actually Taiwanese in origin, that doesn't appeal to me and I'm not too keen on Chinese American food. & I don't think many Chinese restaurants here in London, where I am from, have it on their menus. But the fact that other people do enjoy it, they like the sweet flavours, dishes like sweet & sour chicken, General Tso chicken, egg fried rice, chop suey, honey walnut shrimp, which is believed to have originated in Hong Kong - yet it is consumed in the West, I don't hold that against them. If they or you like it, that's fine.

    Regarding The Search For General Tso, though it may come off as being superficial in its production values and whilst it could have dug a little deeper (such as the unneccessary use of sodium salt, MSG as an ingredient during cooking), this culinary based documentary on one of the most famous Chinese dishes doesn't just explore the origins and history of this particular recipe, to an extent - if not as thoroughly, it makes efforts in examining the connection between food, culture and identity and how it all ties in together. The filmmakers also visited parts of the U.S and discovering there are variations of General Tso's chicken and Chinese food in general. Likewise, there are fusion cuisine restaurants that serve Mexican-Chinese & Indian-Chinese food. There is also a guy, Harry Spiller who collects Chinese restaurant and takeout menus from 50 states.

    I think when it explores America's and the West's relationship, love and fascination for Chinese food and why they enjoy its flavours and the development of Chinese American food itself, through immigration, diaspora and these become its main strengths, that is when The Search For General Tao makes sense as a documentary insight into food and culture. & with that, it becomes an eyeopener in that aspect.

    Probably one of the things that represent this notion is that the Chinese in general immigrated and fled from China to escape persecution and headed for the U.S, in order to make a living for themselves and to obtain a better life. So with that in mind, they opened their own restaurants and take out eateries, cooked and served Chinese food. One may say, these people were giving a taste of that Chinese culture that could only exist in China itself. & yet this didn't just happen in the U.S, but Canada, Australia, Britain and other countries where Chinese people moved elsewhere from their homeland to be happy and successful. & as a result, second and third generation-children of immigrants were and are born in those countries where they grew up, lived and worked.

    Foodies and lovers of food, in general, who want to find out more about the cultural side of this topic ought to see this. I did and though it may not be a mindblowing affair, the information, the way it was presented was an easy watch but also one that was engaging as well. It held my attention all the way through.

    Plus, seeing those food images made me hungry also!

  • ★★★★ review by MrJago on Letterboxd

    Fascinating and fun documentary about the history of Chinese Food and Chinese Immigration in the United States.

    I really want some General Tso's Chicken now!

  • ★★★★ review by Chris Brown on Letterboxd

    This excellent doc isn't so much about General Tso (the dish and the person... though both are discussed of course), but about all of the questions and stories it brings up. From the initial Chinese immigration stories (I thought it was a really nice tidbit to hear that the reason Chinese immigrants spread out over America was so that they wouldn't compete with one another) to how food/culture melds and how both cultures influence one another.

    Plus, it brought back to mind growing up in a small town and how special it was when the family and I would venture out for Chinese food.

    A wonderful doc.

  • ★★★★ review by Dan Gorman on Letterboxd

    Maybe it's because I expected this to be an extremely fluffy piece with a hyper focus on the titular dish, but I was surprised that this offered such a good overview of the history behind American Chinese restaurants and history.

    Sure, it's probably American Chinese Food 101, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

  • ★★★½ review by Robert Saucedo on Letterboxd

    Fantastic documentary that's strength is in its structure and narrative flow. Also, I should eat Chinese food more often.

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