Peng Chang-kuei, a vaunted Hunanese chef who was widely credited as the creator of General Tso’s chicken, a dish that evolved into the deep-fried, sticky and unabashedly inauthentic staple of the American Chinese take-out joint, died Nov. 30 at a hospital in Taipei, Taiwan. He was 97.
The cause was a lung infection, said his son Chuck Peng.
Once the personal chef to the Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, Peng was one of the preeminent Chinese cooks of his generation. He fled mainland China after the Communist Revolution of 1949 and settled in Taiwan, where he sought to uphold the culinary traditions of his native Hunan Province.
Those traditions included no such dish as General Tso’s chicken, despite its modern reputation outside China as a regional classic. Peng said that he devised the recipe for a banquet in the 1950s. He named it in honor of Zuo Zongtang, a celebrated Hunanese general of the 19th century who helped crush the Taiping Rebellion, an uprising that cost tens of millions of lives.
“In America, General Tso, like Colonel Sanders, is known for chicken, not war,” journalist Jennifer 8. Lee wrote in her book “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food.” “In China, he is known for war, not chicken.”
As it was conceived, General Tso’s chicken bore little similarity to the dish known to American diners today. The modern iteration is “sweet, it’s fried and it’s chicken, which are all things that Americans love,” Lee said in an interview, noting the vague resemblance of a bite of General Tso’s to a McDonald’s Chicken McNugget slathered in sauce.
Peng’s original recipe called for chicken with bones and skin, according to Lee. The chicken was not fried, and it was served sans the piquantly sweet sauce, relying instead on garlic and soy sauce for flavor. It did have chilis, as does modern General Tso’s, but no broccoli.
The arrival in the United States of General Tso’s chicken coincided with another milestone in U.S.-Sino relations, President Richard M. Nixon’s opening of China in the early 1970s.
Exactly where the dish debuted is a matter of debate, however, with claims laid by New York eateries including Shun Lee and Peng’s now shuttered Peng’s, which was located several blocks from the United Nations building. A frequent diner at Peng’s was Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s secretary of state, whom Peng credited with promoting Hunanese cuisine over the then more widely available Cantonese fare.
Peng, as well as other chefs who adopted the recipe, adjusted it for the American palate.
“The original General Tso’s chicken was Hunanese in taste, and made without sugar,” Peng told Fuchsia Dunlop, a scholar of Chinese food, “but when I began cooking for non-Hunanese people in the United States, I altered the recipe. Of course I still love the old flavors, the hot and sour and salty tastes, but people these days don’t like them, so I’ve always had to change and improve my cooking methods.”
By 1977, at least one food critic had given Peng’s rendition of General Tso’s her imprimatur. It is “a stir-fried masterpiece, sizzling hot broth in flavor and temperature,” Mimi Sheraton wrote in a New York Times review of Peng’s restaurant.
Within a decade, General Tso’s chicken was a mainstay of hole-in-the-wall, all-you-can-eat buffets. Particularly on the East Coast, it became “virtually synonymous with Hunanese cuisine,” Dunlop wrote in an account of the dish.
But “what is clear is that the dish is all but unknown in Hunan itself. When I went to Hunan for the first time in 2003, mention of it drew blank looks from everyone I met,” she recalled. Any “assertions that General Tso’s chicken is a traditional Hunanese dish and one that the general himself liked eating do not stand up to any scrutiny.”
Peng Chang-kuei was born on Sept. 26, 1919, to a farming family in Changsha, the capital of Hunan Province. He reportedly ran away from home and became an apprentice to Cao Jingchen, a noted chef.
After Japan invaded China in the 1930s, Peng moved to Chongqing, then to Taiwan. Perhaps the first American to taste General Tso’s chicken was Adm. Arthur Radford, who visited Taiwan as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1955 and dined at a banquet catered by Peng, according to Dunlop’s account.
During his decades as a chef, Peng ran restaurants in Changsha and Taipei. He was married three times and had seven children, six of whom survive, along with numerous grandchildren.
Toward the end of his life, Peng was interviewed for “The Search for General Tso” (2014), a documentary exploring the origins of his by then ubiquitous dish. He seemed bemused – perhaps slightly appalled – by photographs of General Tso’s chicken as it is served today, with its generously, even munificently, battered and glazed chunks of boneless meat. “This,” he quipped, “is all crazy nonsense.”
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Emily Langer