Here is something that doesn’t happen often: I am feeling nostalgia for Chinese-American takeout food. I don’t necessarily mean the completely generic single brown sauce choose one meat, and two vegetables sort of Chinese-American food. But I might not use some of my normal grounds to object to a really nice dish of Orange Beef, Sweet and Sour Pork, Beef and Broccoli, or that most quintessential Chinese-American dish: General Tso’s Chicken.
What has put me in this state of mind is the newly available documentary film, The Search for General Tso. I say newly available because the film and its web site has existed for around a year, but for some reason they have waited until now to make it available for people to watch outside of the tiny little world of film festivals and special screenings. I have to admit to completely not understanding how film distribution works. Maybe someone can explain it to me. Anyway, you can watch the movie on iTunes now. I encourage you to do so, especially because I’m going to “spoil” it for you now.
The Search for General Tso asks a simple question (“where did General Tso’s Chicken come from?”) and uses the investigation to take the viewer through two interelated trains of thought. The first tracks down General Tso’s biography for those, including me, who are mostly ignorant of Chinese history. Turns out he was an actual general in the actual Chinese army in the actual Chinese province of Hunan.
The second thread of the film is a brief but excellently told history of Chinese-American immigration mostly told through the lens of the development of Chinese-American food. It provides insight into the reason why Chinese-ish food is so ubiquitous all over the U.S. even though the population of Chinese immigrants is relatively small. There are interviews with restaurant owners from all over the country while the film discusses everything from Chop Suey to Cashew Chicken to Szechuan Style alligator. In addition, the film covers many major events in Chinese-American history that are sometimes overlooked in mainstream accounts, including the Exclusion Act that banned all Chinese immigration between 1882 and 1943.
The combination of the food and immigration stories is appropriate because food is central to the Chinese world view. As the film points out, the most familiar Chinese greeting among good friends is “have you eaten yet”? The immigration/food narrative is also one that emphasizes assimilation in the face of overt and horrible racism. Chinese-American food is largely an attempt to adapt Chinese food to American tastes for economic reasons, thus allowing the Chinese restaurant owners to make a living and fit into their adopted communities. This sort of compromise is in contrast to how we tend to think of identity politics these days, but it’s a position that I am sympathetic to.
Any such discussion of food inevitably brings up the question of “authentic” vs. “adapted” Chinese food. The final act of the film is a feel-good liberal food-relativist montage of Chinese food in all sorts of different contexts. Having been responsible for my share of Chinese/Jewish fusion food I can’t necessarily throw stones, though my personal quests for “real” Chinese food are well known.
I think I’ll go along with the film in taking the position that authenticity is not so much the point. The point is whether the food is good. I have made this point before. Where the film does not go is to a stronger claim that my dad used to make and which, as I get older, I have more and more belief in. That claim is this: Chinese cuisine is the best on Earth. It encompasses the widest range of styles, flavors, textures and techniques. It has no equal in taking what seems simple (bok choy! dumplings! chicken rice! cabbage and meatball soup!) and making it completely sublime.
A stupid page on the Internet can’t convince you of this. You have to go see for yourself, and the best place to do that is in Asia. The Chinese food we see here in America is a tiny little narrow sliver of what is really available. It’s like comparing a mouthful of sea water that you might have sucked through a straw to the entire Atlantic ocean. In addition it’s been pulled and prodded and bent and adapted within an inch of its life. But, and this is important, it’s still some of the best food you can get here. That should be enough evidence for you take my claim seriously and to verify it for yourself.
Extra Final Note 1: This movie did not change my opinion of P.F. Chang’s at all. If you watch the film you’ll see why I feel the need to mention this.
Extra Final Note 2: By far the best General Tso’s Chicken in Pittsburgh can be found at Zaw’s Asian Food in Squirrel Hill. They have been doing it for more than 20 years, and as far as I can tell the dish has never changed. The secret: actual fresh chicken meat instead of frozen nuggets.