Though it does ultimately get around to relating the origin of the chicken dish named for the 18th-century Chinese general, most of The Search for General Tso is a breezy survey of the history of
Opening with the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Acts with which white people drove Chinese immigrants out of California, Ian Cheney’s film approaches the resulting culinary diaspora via a number of paths, racism among them. American racism has always been made with the spiciness of violence and the thickening agent of legislation, and the film addresses the purges of Californian Chinese neighborhoods and the time that the good people of Springfield, Missouri, dynamited the restaurant of the Chinese chef who invented cashew chicken.
Cheney investigates the Chinese business associations that help restaurateurs establish their outlets; he talks to a number of charming restaurant proprietors across the United States about their menus and families. He finds Harley Spiller, the New York owner of what the Guinness Book cites as the world’s largest collection of Chinese restaurant memorabilia. It’s in the menu of a restaurant called Hunam from 1972 that the film discovers the first offering of General Tso’s chicken, now a ubiquitous dish much changed from its actual creation in the 1960s by a Taiwanese chef named Peng.
The film regards Chinese-American cuisine as an adaptable medium that has always incorporated trends and tastes popular among the majority-white population; the elderly chef Peng, however, regards it as a thoroughly inauthentic bastardization of real Chinese cuisine. As his son shows him dozens of photos of Americanized interpretations of his signature dish, he says, “This is all crazy nonsense.”