TED Radio Hour
7:20 am
Fri November 15, 2013

Where Does General Tso Chicken Actually Come From?

Originally published on Fri March 28, 2014 7:38 am

Part 2 of the TED Radio Hour episode Misconceptions.

About Jennifer 8. Lee's Talk

Journalist Jennifer 8. Lee talks about her hunt for the origins of familiar Chinese-American dishes — exploring the hidden spots where these two cultures have combined to form a new cuisine.

About Jennifer 8. Lee

Journalist Jennifer 8. Lee is the author of the book The Fortune Cookie Chronicles. Her fascination with American Chinese food led her to research and write the book, in which she solves some of the mysteries around this indigenous cuisine, including such questions as: "Who is General Tso and why are we eating his chicken?" and "Why do Jews eat Chinese food on Christmas?" She is currently working on a documentary based on her book.



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Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And our show today - all about misconceptions - the things we seem to think are true. Like, for example, fortune cookies, eaten by people in China. So writer Jennifer 8. Lee flew to China with a bag of fortune cookies, and she start handing them out to people on the streets of Beijing. And what happened?

JENNIFER 8. LEE: Yeah, so if you give fortune cookies to Chinese people, they're really perplexed 'cause they're like, oh, what's this? And you're like, it's a - you know, it's a cookie from America. And then - so they'll put it - so they're fine, right? And they put it in their mouth, and then they'll bite. And then suddenly they're like, oh, my God, there's, like, a piece of paper in my mouth, right? And they're like, Americans are so strange. Why are they putting paper in their cookies?

RAZ: So Jennifer 8. Lee decided to dig into her own Chinese heritage, particularly the food. And she uncovered all kinds of stuff about it that almost no one knows, like the story behind one of the most all beloved of all Chinese foods, General Tso's chicken. Here's her talk.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

LEE: General Tso's chicken - which, by the way, in the U.S. Naval Academy is called Admiral Tso's chicken - I love this dish. The original name of my book was actually called "The Long March of General Tso." And he has marched very far indeed, and indeed that actually was a picture of General Tso. I went to his hometown. This is a billboard that says, welcome to the birthplace of General Tso. And I went looking for chicken. I actually found a whole bunch of General Tso's relatives who were still in the little town, showed them all the pictures of General Tso's chicken that I showed you. And they're like, we don't know this dish.

And then they're like, is this Chinese food? 'Cause it doesn't look like Chinese food to them. But they weren't kind of surprised I had traveled around the world to visit them because in their eyes, he is, after all, a famous Qing Dynasty military hero. He had played an important role in the Taiping rebellion, which was a war started by a guy who thought he was the son of God and the baby brother of Jesus Christ, and caused the war that killed 20 million people, still the deadliest civil war in the world to this day. So, you know, I realized when I was there, General Tso is kind of a lot like Colonel Sanders in America in that he's known for chicken and not war. But in China, this guy's actually known for war and not chicken.

But I love General Tso's chicken. I think it is...

RAZ: I do, too. It's so good.

LEE: ...Like an amazing creation...

RAZ: It's incredible.

LEE: ...For this universe.

RAZ: Did you grow up eating that kind of Chinese food?

LEE: Yes. I grew up eating Chinese food at home, where my mom would make it. And also, we ate American-Chinese food because there were Chinese takeouts. And I would go and order the beef with broccoli and, like, roast pork lo mein and, you know, chicken fried rice. And it wasn't until I really went to China that I understood that this food that I'd been eating growing up was not Chinese. There's no reminder ever that the thing on your plate ever flew or walked or swam. Like, everything is sort of stripped of its, like, animalness. But in China, it's like, bring it on. Like, you know, you have, like, hooves and tongue and blood and ears. I mean, that's when I really kind of came to understand that what I had been experiencing in New York restaurants on the Upper West Side was not Chinese at all.

RAZ: Like fortune cookies, as we heard, not Chinese, but actually Japanese.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

LEE: And in Kyoto outside, there's still small family-run bakeries. They make fortune cookies as they did over 100 years ago, 30 years before fortune cookies were introduced in the United States. And you see them side-by-side. There's yellow and brown. Those are actually flavored with miso and sesame paste, so they're not as sweet as our version. So how did they get to get the United States? Well, the short answer is the Japanese immigrants came over and a bunch of the bakers introduced them using very much the similar kind of irons that we saw back in Kyoto. So the interesting question is, well, how do you go from fortune cookies being something that is Japanese to something that is being Chinese? Well, the short answer is, well, we locked up all the Japanese during World War II, including those that made fortune cookies. So that's the time when the Chinese moved in, kind of saw a market opportunity and took over.

(LAUGHTER)

LEE: So fortune cookies, invented by the Japanese, popularized by the Chinese, but ultimately consumed by Americans. They are more American than anything else. In contrast, we have General Tso's chicken, which actually started in New York City in the early 1970s. But that dish also took about 10 years to spread across America from a random restaurant in New York City. Someone was like, oh, God. It's sweet. It's fried. It's chicken. Americans will love this. So the thing is this kind of idea of Chinese-American food doesn't exist only in America. For example, there is French-Chinese food where they serve salt and pepper frog legs. There is Italian-Chinese food where they don't have fortune cookies, so they serve fried gelato. My downstairs neighbor, Alessandra, was completely shocked when I told her, dude, fried gelato is not Chinese. She's like, it's not? But they serve it in all the Chinese restaurants in Italy.

(LAUGHTER)

LEE: There is West Indian-Chinese food. There's Middle Eastern-Chinese food. There's Peruvian-Chinese food, which should not be mixed with Mexican-Chinese food, where they basically take things and make it look like fajitas. And then, my personal favorite of all the restaurants I encountered around the world was this one in Brazil, called Kung Food.

(LAUGHTER)

RAZ: Could you make the argument that Chinese immigrants, you know, became Chinese-Americans in some ways through Chinese food?

LEE: I mean, definitely. The journey of Chinese food in a very macro way is a story of immigration everywhere, which is that you take the local ingredients, and you combine it in a way that looks foreign on the outside, but is sort of indigenous to that native land. So, you know, what happens to me with some regularity is people ask you, you know, so where are you from? And being in New York, and I'm like, I'm from New York. And they're like, no, no, where are you really from? And I'm like, dude, I was, like, born and raised in New York, and I live there now. So sort of a dish like General Tso's chicken now has become so American, it's unrecognized by Chinese people in China who look at that and are like, is that Chinese food? It has become its own cuisine that is distinctive and recognizable.

RAZ: It's almost like foreignness in some ways is becoming extinct.

LEE: Yeah. I would say over time it will. This idea of otherness will morph significantly.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

LEE: So the thing is, our historical lore because of the way we like narratives, are full of vast characters, such as, you know, Howard Schultz of Starbucks and Ray Kroc with McDonald's and Asa Candler with Coca-Cola. But, you know, it's very easy to overlook the smaller characters, for example, like Lem Sen, who introduced chop suey, Chef Peng, who introduced General Tso's chicken and all the Japanese bakers who introduced fortune cookies. So the point of my presentation is to make you think twice that those whose names are forgotten in history can often have had as much, if not more impact on what we eat today. So thank you very much.

(APPLAUSE)

RAZ: Writer Jennifer 8. Lee. She tells her story in the "Fortune Cookie Chronicles." Her talk is one of the funniest things you will ever see at TED.com. So what do you get with your check at a restaurant in China?

LEE: Fruit.

RAZ: Oh.

LEE: Actually here in the United States, if you're Chinese they'll often give you fruit.

RAZ: Wait. So when you go to a Chinese restaurant, there's kind of a wink and somebody will give you fruit? But, like, if I go, they won't even do that. They'll just give me fortune cookies?

LEE: Yeah, its this whole - it's like - yeah. It's not even a secret wink or nod. It's just understood. It's like a whole different parallel universe...

RAZ: Oh, really?

LEE: ...That people who don't know cannot partake in. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.