For filmmaker Ian Cheney, food is "a way to gather people around a table to talk about the ongoing interminglings of our cultures around the world." His acclaimed documentary film, The Search for General Tso, explores the melding of American and Chinese food traditions through a global search for the origins of America's beloved dish. It turns out there was a real General Tso, or Zuo Zongtang, who led the Qing Dynasty Army during the Taiping Rebellion. But Cheney is less interested in this than in raising questions about authenticity, exchange, and the idea of culinary nationalism—national identity as expressed through food and human behavior. We spoke with Cheney in advance of the film's screening at UNC's Culinary Nationalism in Asia conference on March 30.
INDY: What prompted you to set off on this investigation of General Tso's chicken?
IAN CHENEY: The film project arose from a very mundane question, really. It was on a cross-country trip probably a dozen years ago when a friend and I were eating our college favorite, General Tso's chicken, in a small town in Eastern Ohio. There was just something about this little outpost with red booths and neon lights in a town that didn't have much else going on. It made us wonder: How did this family running this restaurant come here? And who the heck was General Tso? So that launched the idea of making a film where we explored the phenomenon of Chinese food in America. A couple years later we teamed up with Jennifer 8. Lee, who had written a book on the topic and did a ton of amazing research.
What message do you hope this film will convey to American eaters?
There is a story and history behind everything we eat, and sometimes even the simplest foods that we take for granted can yield interesting and important insights into our country's history and immigration of many people. The film is also a celebration of American Chinese food. As much as we may raise our eyebrows at the "authenticity" of a dish like General Tso's chicken or many of the dishes that are served in mom-and-pop American Chinese restaurants, you could argue that it's become kind of a cuisine unto itself.
The flip side is that, even as we celebrate quirky dishes like General Tso's chicken, American consumers will become even more curious about Chinese food as it's prepared in China. I'm hopeful that the kind of restaurants that you see popping up in larger American cities where they're serving food from more diverse Chinese regions will start to take hold in a larger form across the rest of the country.
So how should we be approaching Chinese food in America, given what you've researched?
The film is somewhat unabashedly a celebration of this weird phenomenon that is American Chinese food. Sometimes this becomes a debate over what is authentic and therefore what is good, and I'm inclined to be a little more inclusive. Sure, General Tso's chicken does not resemble what you might be served in a small town in China, but that doesn't mean that it's not interesting or that it might not have a kind of authenticity of its own.
How does The Search for General Tso fit into the conversation of Asian culinary nationalism rather than American culinary nationalism?
I haven't been able to attend any of the screenings of the film in Asia, so I don't have a great read on how people in Taipei, for example, might have received what Chef Peng, the Taiwanese creator of General Tso's chicken, says at the end of the film. Chef Peng gets at this sense of what happens when food changes as it moves around the world.
On the one hand, there's something gained when you make something new that did not exist before American Chinese food, but something can be lost. And I think Chef Peng is really speaking as a chef there, and wishing for a world in which Americans wouldn't adapt a foreign cuisine to fit their culture and twist it in new ways to make sense in their restaurants and in their landscapes. Instead, he wishes folks accept Chinese food for what it is and leave it unchanged. I've only eaten Chinese food in a handful of other countries, like Italy or Poland, or France, but in all instances, it's something entirely different.
In other words, the idea that any food can travel to a new land and remain somehow unchanged is probably unrealistic.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Who is General Tso."