In the trailer for The Search for General Tso, a documentary that hits theaters and video on demand this weekend, New York-based Chinese food expert Ed Schoenfeld notes that the ubiquitous General Tso’s chicken is a business that’s in the billions of dollars. Maybe my brain is just exploding from too much MSG or maybe that number is just insane (perhaps not, given the reach of Panda Express). Either way, Schoenfeld makes a good point overall, a point that others in this film about Chinese food in America make as well: The fried, often overly sweet and sticky but almost always satisfying General Tso’s chicken, one of many Chinese-restaurant dishes that are really based on American tastes, is a phenomenon, an immovable force. It’s been on the menu or at least a source of inspiration in so many kinds of Chinese restaurants, from fine-dining pioneers like New York’s Shun Lee Palace to sketchy dives with bulletproof glass to next-wave destinations like chef Richard Hales’ game-changing BlackBrick in Miami, which has been serving General Tso’s alligator.
Watch this documentary and you’ll learn how General Tso’s chicken ascended even beyond the status of American classics like meatloaf. You’ll find out that there really was a General Tso in China, but that General Tso’s chicken was created in Taipei after he died and that so much about the dish changed once Shun Lee Palace gave New York its first taste of the chicken more than 30 years ago.
It’s like a tin-can-telephone culinary game where almost everybody ends up winning in the end.
On Sunday, you can join The Search for General Tso producer Jennifer 8. Lee (the former New York Times star who wrote The Fortune Cookie Chronicles), Midtown Lunch’s Zach Brooks and KCRW’s Evan Kleiman (Brooks and Kleiman are also big Chinese food enthusiasts in L.A.) for a screening of the film.
Tickets ($15) for the 5:10 p.m. screening at Hollywood’s Arena Cinema include a Q&A afterwards and then free General Tso’s chicken. Sweet!
Arena Cinema, 1625 N. Las Palmas Ave., Los Angeles, tickets are available online.