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Wednesday, January 26th, 2022  

The Search for General Tso

Studio: Sundance Selects
Directed by Ian Cheney

Jan 02, 2015 Web Exclusive
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Ian Cheney’s The Search for General Tso is as fascinating a documentary as it is unique. The premise may seem—dare it be said—silly, but the film proves an entirely engrossing exploration into not only the origin of the popular dish, General Tso’s Chicken, but of Americanized Chinese food in general. Turns out the gastronomical infatuation Americans have with Chinese food finds its origins in legal persecution perpetrated by Congress against Chinese immigrants in the years during and immediately following the 1849 gold rush.

As settlers flocked to the West Coast in the middle of the 19th century, Chinese immigrants poured into booming cities, such as San Francisco. Prejudice got the better of lawmakers, and they enacted legislation, which made it all but impossible for the incoming Chinese to work any business they did not own. The Chinese population spread across the United States in the 20th Century, opening restaurants. Wary diners soon flocked to these establishments craving Chop Suey, a dish that seemed exotic, but offered familiar flavors of chicken, beef, and pork. In the mid 1900s, however, the craze died down, and it wasn’t until President Nixon was seen eating authentic dishes in China that U.S. patrons again attended Chinese restaurants in droves. It was at the height of that craze that General Tso’s Chicken was first introduced to American eaters.

Cheney’s documentary perfectly pairs mouth-watering food imagery with the fascinating history of a little-considered cultural phenomenon. (Seriously, try not to get hungry while watching.) Like an expert waiter, the film delivering facts in a fun, fast, and fashionable way, setting the table with more tidbits than one imagines the subject would serve. General Tso’s Chicken is on virtually every Chinese food menu in the country, yet chances are, no one bothers to think long or hard about why that is or where it came from when ordering. Foodies and filmgoers alike are fortunate Ian Cheney took the time not only to ask the questions, but to answer them.

Author rating: 7/10

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