Friday, January 9th, 2015

The Search For General Tso

This odd but entertaining documentary from writer/director Ian Cheney is an inquiry into how a ubiquitous dish of fried chicken became a staple item on every single Chinese restaurant in the USA even though nobody back in Mainland China has ever heard of it.  Cheney discovers there was an actual General Tso a military hero back in the 19th Century in China’s Hunan Province but he failed to manage to find even a spurious link as to why these chicken nuggets were named after him.

Thanks to a rather bizarre and obsessive collector Harley Spiller who has amassed more than 10,000 Chinese Take Away Menus (!) we learn that there are at least 15 different spellings and numerous pronunciations of the General’s name although the dish itself rarely changes from being sticky soy sauce drenched chicken.  Spiller is not the only eccentric interviewed here as another talking head is David Chan a pan-faced accountant  who claims to have eaten at more than 6000 Chinese restaurants. 

The most interesting part of the investigation is when Cheney talks to some of the pioneering Chinese restaurateurs who first opened their eateries back in the days when the US Exclusion Act forced immigrants out of the labor market and into starting up small businesses.   These first restaurants catered to unsophisticated palates and so Chinese cuisine was modified to American tastes and ended up creating a passion for unlikely dishes such as ‘chop suey.’  It wasn’t until the 1960’s and 1970’s when the foodie renaissance finally brought high-end authentic Chinese food to some of the major cities in the US did things start to change.

Whilst Cheney spends considerable time discussing the popularity of this food with some famous chefs, food historians and writers, equally illuminating is when he journeys into small American towns when the isolated local Chinese restaurant is run by ‘the only Chinese family in the village’.  Their stories of how they assimilated into an alien culture is the best part of this quirky wee film.  Much better than any dish of the General’s chicken.



Posted by queerguru  at  16:12

Genres:  documentary

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