(2014) Documentary (Sundance Selects) Cecilia Chiang, Peter Kwong, Bonnie Tsui, Liang Xiao Jin, Philip Chiang, Andrew Coe, Chef Peng Chang-Kuei, Harley Spiller, Tammy Fong, Sue Lee, David Leong, Cyrstyl Mo, Wing Wah Leong, Don Siegel, Ed Schoenfeld, Wing Yee Leong, Renqiu Yu, Fuschia Dunlop, Wang Pinduan, Robert G. Lee, Fred Wong, Susan Carter, Ella Lee, Lily Han. Directed by Ian Cheney
There probably isn’t an American above the age of five who hasn’t had Chinese food of one sort or another during their lives and for a good percentage of Americans above that age, Chinese is a regular cuisine on the menus of our lives. And of all of those, most have at least tried if not fallen in love with General Tso’s Chicken, the most popular dish in Chinese cuisine in the United States, and other than pizza and maybe tacos, the most popular ethnic dish in America.
But how did it get to be that way? Who is General Tso exactly and why did this chicken dish get named for him? Was it General Tso himself who invented the dish or did someone else do that? And how do you make it?
Good questions all and each one is answered in this lively documentary which has a very compact one hour and thirteen minute run time. Cheney interviews a wide variety of subjects from historians and authors on Chinese-American culture to restaurant owners and chefs. Here he paints a vivid picture of a race that came to America’s gold fields in the 19th century and stayed on as laborers. Racial prejudices on the West Coast, which were extreme when it came to Chinese workers, led to the enactment of the Exclusion Act which made it nearly impossible for new workers to immigrate to the United States and made life intolerable for those who were already here, who then spread throughout the country with essentially only two careers available to them; launderers and restaurant owners.
This is much cultural anthropology as it is foodie doc, and while there are some nifty animations that help keep things light, the undercurrent has some surprising depth to it as we see how difficult to achieve the American dream was for Asians even in recent times, as one Missouri restaurant owner calmly explains how his father’s restaurant was dynamited shortly before it was to open and even once it did, there were picketers exhorting him to return to China since the local white population didn’t want Asian business owners, and this was less than 50 years ago.
It also raises the question of authenticity. General Tso’s chicken, which has a sweet and spicy taste to it, is expressly for American tastes; you won’t find the dish in this form in China, particularly in the Hunan province where the real General Tso (yes, there was one) once lived. We also discover that a chef from Taipei claims to have invented the dish, although it was adapted by a more famous New York chef after visits to Taipei and took off in the ’70s to become one of those ubiquitous menu items you find in nearly every Chinese restaurant, take-out place or bistro.
While many purists decry the dish as inauthentic, one has to wonder what authentic really means in a cuisine that varies greatly from province to province in China and has evolved a great deal over the years. Maybe you won’t find this when you visit China but what matters more is whether or not you yourself like it and crave it. It may not be the kind of Chinese food you get in, say, Shanghai, but if you can’t go to Shanghai and check out the real McCoy you can at least taste what you get in Springfield, Missouri and enjoy it just as much.
REASONS TO GO: Informative. Lively. Doesn’t take itself too seriously.
REASONS TO STAY: Lots and lots of talking heads. WILL make you hungry for Chinese food whether you like it or not.
FAMILY VALUES: Nothing that would worry all but the most overly fussy parents.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Originally to have been released in early 2014 by Warner Brothers, when Legendary’s distribution contract with that studio expired and a new one signed with Universal, this was one of the movies whose release date was delayed as Universal took over distribution.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/2/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jiro Dreams of Sushi
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: McFarland USA