Who Was General Tso (And Why Does He Have His Own Chicken)?

Learn all about the real General Tso.

mid angle, looking into a plate of general tso's chicken
Photo: Dotdash Meredith Food Studios

You might be surprised to learn that General Tso's chicken, a staple on Chinese-American menus, is almost entirely foreign to people who live in the country from which it supposedly originated.

While the dish isn't exactly authentic Chinese food, its namesake was a very real (and very powerful) general.

Zuo Zongtang (General Tso) was a respected Chinese statesman and military leader of the late Qing dynasty, which ruled the country from 1644 until 1912. He played an important role in the Taiping Rebellion, a civil war that was waged in China in the mid-19th century. Zuo is roughly equivalent to General Sherman in U.S. culture, according to HuffPost.

If you're expecting some far-fetched tale about how this legendary military hero invented a legendary dish in his downtime, this ain't it.

Zongtang had nothing to do with the sticky-sweet chicken, and he likely never would've eaten anything remotely similar to it.

A chef named Peng Chang-kuei actually created the dish in the '50s. Peng was a banquet chef for Chinese Nationalists and he fled to Taiwan with them after their 1949 defeat by Mao Zedong's Communists. It was there that he came up with the general idea for the dish (pun intended), and he brought it to the States when he immigrated to New York in 1973. Of course, he had to make the dish sweeter to cater to the U.S. palate.

His NYC restaurant, Uncle Peng's Hunan Yuan, was one of the first Hunanese restaurants in the country. According to The Daily Meal, the 44th street location was close to the United Nations headquarters. Henry Kissinger became a regular customer and helped make the restaurant a success.

Chang-kuei died in 2016 at the ripe old age of 97, but his most famous creation is still alive and kickin' in almost every Chinese restaurant in the country.

So why was it named after a war hero from the 1800s? Well, Peng was from the same town as Zongtang and his was the first name that came to mind when he was tasked with naming the dish.

There ya have it. Here's a really good General Tso's recipe, by the way.

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