Is General Tso's chicken real Chinese food?

General Tso's chicken is the most popular Chinese food item ordered in America, and it's the fourth most popular dish overall ordered on food delivery app GrubHub (via NBC). But is General Tso's chicken real Chinese food? And if not, where did it come from, and why is it so popular? 

For those not in the know, General Tso's chicken is usually a dish made of deep-fried pieces of chicken that are coated in a sweet, tangy, and sometimes spicy sauce. But the General Tso's chicken we eat at Chinese food restaurants in America today is a lot different than the original version. 

Where does General Tso's chicken come from?

General Tso's chicken may be a famous Chinese restaurant dish in the U.S., but it was actually invented in Taiwan (via Smithsonian Magazine). It was first cooked by chef Peng Chang-kuei, a Chinese chef who fled to Taiwan during Mao Zedong's communist reign. He was inspired by traditional Hunanese cooking when he first made the dish in Taiwan. 

This original iteration of General Tso's chicken is a lot different than what we see today. For one, it wasn't sweet, but instead, it was sour, hot, and salty. It also wasn't made with boneless fried chicken pieces and was sometimes even made with bone-in, skin-on chicken. It wasn't until a chef living in New York City tasted General Tso's chicken at Peng Chang-kuei's restaurant and brought the recipe back that the dish we're all so familiar with today was created.

When was General Tso's chicken invented?

That chef, Tsung Ting Wang, had traveled to Taiwan to taste Hunanese food from the various chefs who had fled communist China, hoping to find inspiration for his own restaurant. He tried the General Tso's chicken at Peng Chang-kuei's restaurant, and eventually adapted the recipe for his own restaurant. 

The main changes he made? He added a sweet element to the sauce and a crispier batter to the chicken. Eventually, this version of the dish became so popular that when Chang-kuei opened up his own restaurant in New York, he modified the recipe to be sweeter. Fans included Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who is credited as being one of the dish's most famous fans (via USA Today).

Peng Chang-kuei died in Taiwan at the age of 98, 60 years after creating the most famous Chinese food dish in America. Sure, the dish we know today might not exactly be "authentic," but it's certainly iconic.