The Little-Known Reason You Shouldn't Order General Tso's Chicken At A Chinese Restaurant

While many people think General Tso's Chicken has its roots in the Chinese province of Hunan, the dish is alien to the province that it was supposed to have come from.

The dish was actually invented in the kitchens of Hunan-born chef Peng Chang-kuei, who had begun training as a chef when he was just 13 years old. It was during his time as an apprentice chef for the family of a former prime minister that Peng learned to create new ways of executing old family favorites. Taiwan News says after the Second World War, Peng was put in charge of putting together banquets for the Nationalist government. This experience put the chef in the perfect position to prepare the meals for a senior US military official who was on a four-day visit to Taiwan in 1952.

There is only so much you can do, and Taiwan News says that because chef Peng had exhausted his repertoire of dishes, he decided to create a dish by deep-frying chicken chunks and ladling a sauce on top of that. When the visiting US 7th Fleet Admiral asked what the dish was called, Peng drew inspiration from the admiral's military rank and dubbed it General Tso's Chicken – after the famous general Tso Tsung-t'ang from Peng's home province of Hunan.

General Tso's Chicken was further adapted for the American palate

In 2007, Peng admitted to New York Times Magazine that he couldn't remember how or why he came up with the dish, but the flavors weren't what they are today. "Originally the flavors of the dish were typically Hunanese — heavy, sour, hot and salty," he had said. The original recipe included red chilies, chopped ginger, and dark and light varieties of soy sauce among its ingredients.

That flavor profile changed when the dish was brought to America by chefs who decided to adapt it to the local palate. New York restauranteur Ed Schoenfeld told Salon that when he and his business partner, David Keh, went to Taiwan, they liked Peng's menu and brought that back to New York with a few added twists: "We didn't want to copy chef Peng exactly. We added our own spin to dishes. And so our General Tso's chicken was cut differently, into small dice, and we served it with water chestnuts, black mushrooms, hoisin sauce, and vinegar." But even the version that Schoenfeld and Keh came up wasn't the one that captured America's tastebuds. The credit for that went to another chef and competitor, TT Wang, who, as Schoenfeld recalled, made the chicken batter crispier and the sauce sweeter.

The inventor of General Tso's Chicken was regarded as the copycat of his time

Peng claimed that when he moved to the US, he further changed the recipe by making it sweeter. "The original General Tso's chicken was Hunanese in taste and made without sugar. But when I began cooking for non-Hunanese people in the United States, I altered the recipe," Peng told New York Times Magazine's Fuschia Dunlop. The chef's iteration of his own dish is just one of several that have become entrenched in Chinese-American cooking. 

But because he had set up shop later than the other chefs had, his take on the popular dish was actually regarded as the copycat. Still, Peng could name former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger as a fan of his cooking, and Schoenfeld said the combination managed to push General Tso's Chicken into America's collective food consciousness (via Salon). 

General Tso's Chicken isn't on the menu of an authentic Chinese restaurant

Chef Peng passed away in 2016, but not before he managed to give Jennifer 8. Lee, Chinese American author and producer of the documentary The Search for General Tso's Chicken, his verdict on the way his dish looks today. "[General Tso's Chicken] has marched so far, actually, that the chef who originally invented the dish doesn't recognize it; he's kind of horrified ... After I showed him this (a photo of the chicken dish), he got up, and says and says ... 'This is all nonsense'" (via Ted).

Because General Tso's Chicken isn't a thing in authentic Chinese cooking, it's a dish you're better off not ordering in an authentic Chinese restaurant. Eat This! also provides a good reason to give this favorite a hard pass: Registered dietitian and author Lauren Harris-Pincus says, "General Tso's Chicken is a very popular dish to order at a Chinese restaurant but it's far from healthy when talking about Chinese cuisine. This dish is breaded, fried, and smothered in a sugary, salty sauce." Harris-Pincus says the dish also provides nearly 2,400 mg of sodium (the American Heart Association is keen on us keeping our daily sodium intake at 1,500 mg), 88 grams of fat, 62 grams of sugar, and 1578 calories. This makes us think that some dishes, like this one, were probably best left to the imagination.