In the canon of 20th-century foods, there are few if any dishes that loom larger than General Tso’s Chicken. It’s a ubiquitous staple of Chinese restaurants, of which there are more in the United States than Burger Kings, Domino’s, McDonald’s, Pizza Huts, and Wendy’s combined. When people talk about Chinese-American food they’re probably talking about General Tso’s chicken, and it’s as much a staple comfort food that Americans cling to as pizza or wings. On Wednesday, the chef who’s often credited with inventing the iconic dish, Peng Chang-kuei, died from pneumonia at the age of 98.
Peng was born in Changsha, Hunan, and named his creation, its flavors inspired by his home’s cuisine, for one of the province’s famous generals. But as was documented by both Chinese-food authority Fuchsia Dunlop, who wrote an acclaimed cookbook about Hunanese food, and in the documentary Search for General Tso, no one in Hunan really knows about the dish. That’s because it was invented in Taiwan, where a lot of China’s classically trained chefs fled after the Chinese Civil War. Peng had serious chops: He trained under Hunanese chef Cao Jing-chen, the family cook for one of China’s former prime ministers, and ran Nationalist government banquets after World War II. Like a lot of China’s great cooks, who by virtue of their vocation had ties to the upper class, he fled to Taiwan after the fall of the Nationalist government in 1949.
Three years later, according to Peng, he invented the dish that would become a staple of the American diet while cooking for American Admiral Arthur W. Radford. He brought it to the United States in 1971 when he opened a restaurant in New York — one Mimi Sheraton of the New York Times called it a “stir‐fried masterpiece” — and it soon became a craze. It quickly landed at Shun Lee Palace, where RedFarm owner and Chinese-food obsessive Ed Schoenfeld says Chef T. T. Wang made it tarter and sweeter to accommodate the American palate. Peng tried to launch a chain of restaurants in the United States, and while his plans were foiled, his creation swept the nation. But drop into any Chinese-American restaurant from Anchorage, Alaska, to Harrisonville, Missouri, to Garden City, Long Island, and you’ll find General Tso’s on the menu.