Obituary

Taiwanese chef who invented General Tso's chicken dies, aged 97

Mr Peng Chang-kuei in the 2014 documentary The Search For General Tso. The Taiwanese chef, who invented General Tso’s chicken, died at the age of 97.
Mr Peng Chang-kuei in the 2014 documentary The Search For General Tso. The Taiwanese chef, who invented General Tso’s chicken, died at the age of 97.PHOTO: WICKED DELICATE FILMS

NEW YORK • Mr Peng Chang-kuei, the Taiwanese chef who invented General Tso's chicken, a dish nearly universal in Chinese restaurants in the United States, died last Wednesday in Taipei. He was 97.

The death was reported by the Associated Press.

British food scholar Fuchsia Dunlop has called General Tso's chicken - lightly battered pieces of dark chicken fried in a chilli-accented sweet-and-sour sauce - "the most famous Hunanese dish in the world".

But like many Chinese dishes that have found favour with Americans, General Tso's chicken was unknown in China until recently.

Nor was it, in the version known to most Americans, Hunanese, a cuisine defined by salty, hot and sour flavours.

Mr Peng, an official chef for the Nationalist government, which fled to Taiwan after the 1949 revolution in China, said he created the dish during a four-day visit by Admiral Arthur Radford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during the Taiwan Strait crisis of 1955.

On the spur of the moment, he assigned it the name of a Hunanese general, Zuo Zongtang, who had helped crush the Taiping Rebellion in the 19th century.

"Originally the flavours of the dish were typically Hunanese - heavy, sour, hot and salty," Mr Peng told Dunlop, the author of Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook (2007). "The original General Tso's chicken was Hunanese in taste and made without sugar."

The dish made its way to New York in the early 1970s after Chinese chefs in New York, preparing to open the city's first Hunanese restaurants - Uncle Tai's Hunan Yuan and Hunam - visited a restaurant Mr Peng had opened in Taipei. They adapted the recipe to suit American tastes.

"We didn't want to copy chef Peng exactly," Mr Ed Schoenfeld, an assistant to Uncle Tai's Hunan Yuan's owner, Mr David Keh, told the website Salon in 2010. "We added our spin to dishes. And so our General Tso's chicken was cut differently, into small dices, and we served it with water chestnuts, black mushrooms, hoisin sauce and vinegar."

The chef was Mr Wen Dah Tai.

At Hunam, chef Tsung Ting Wang put a Sichuan spin on the dish. He crisped up the batter and sweetened the sauce, producing a combination that millions of Americans came to love.

In 1973, with Hunan fever raging, Mr Peng came to New York and, with Mr Keh, opened Uncle Peng's Hunan Yuan on East 44th Street, near the United Nations.

Mr Peng discovered, to his consternation, that his creation had preceded him and that the child was almost unrecognisable.

The tangled history of the dish was explored in 2014 in a documentary, The Search For General Tso, directed by Ian Cheney.

Mr Peng was born on Sept 26, 1919, to a farming family in Changsha, the capital of Hunan province. He reportedly ran away from home and became an apprentice to Cao Jingchen, a noted chef. After Japan invaded China in the 1930s, Peng moved to Chongqing, then to Taiwan. He was married three times and had seven children, six of whom survive, along with numerous grandchildren.

New York proved to be a fraught experiment, as his restaurant soon closed. Undaunted, he borrowed money from friends and opened Yunnan Yuan on East 52nd Street. A frequent diner was Dr Henry Kissinger, then the United States secretary of state, whom Mr Peng credited with promoting Hunanese cuisine over the then more widely available Cantonese fare.

General Tso's chicken began to assume celebrity status when Mr Bob Lape, a restaurant critic, showed Mr Peng making the dish in a segment for ABC News. The station received about 1,500 requests for the recipe.

Encouraged, Mr Peng reopened his old restaurant as Peng's.

Reviewing the restaurant in the The Times in 1977, Ms Mimi Sheraton wrote, "General Tso's chicken was a stir-fried masterpiece, sizzling hot both in flavour and temperature".

Mr Peng returned to Taiwan in the late 1980s and opened the first in a chain of Peng Yuan restaurants there.

As Hunanese chefs adopted General Tso's chicken, the dish entered a strange second career. In a sweeping act of historical revisionism, it came to be seen as a traditional Hunan dish. Several Hunanese chefs have described it in their cookbooks as a favourite of the 19th-century general's.

NYTIMES, WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 05, 2016, with the headline ''. Print Edition | Subscribe