General Tso Was Real, But He Never Actually Ate His Eponymous Chicken

Here in the U.S., we love to put our own riff on foods from other countries. Take fettuccine alfredo, for example. While Italians eat pasta al burro (pasta with butter) or cacio e pepe (cheese and pepper), fettuccine alfredo as we know it is a decidedly American invention (via Roger Bissell). Another example is meatloaf, which became popular in the U.S. during the Great Depression, but was originally made as a way to use up leftover scraps in medieval Europe, according to Bon Appétit. And while nothing may sound more American than a box of Kraft macaroni and cheese, Insider shares that Thomas Jefferson actually brought the dish to the U.S. after visiting France.

Asian cuisine doesn't escape Americanization, either. For instance, egg rolls may be a popular appetizer in Chinese restaurants here, but they actually came from none other than New York in the 1930s, according to The Travel. In fact, many American Chinese foods are completely different from the dishes you'll find in China. According to The Emory Wheel, orange chicken, lo mein, and fortune cookies are not authentically Chinese, and American Chinese foods focus mostly on sweet and sour flavors. And when it comes to an American favorite, General Tso's chicken, it turns out the general may have never actually tasted the chicken named after him.

The chicken was named in the general's honor

Visit any Chinese restaurant in the U.S., and you'll likely see General Tso's chicken on the menu. This dish is essentially chicken chunks fried and coated in a mixture of sauces, including oyster sauce, hoisin sauce, and soy sauce. Topped with sesame seeds and served over rice, the chicken combines sweet, tangy, and spicy flavors in every bite.

So who was General Tso? Also known as Zuo Zongtang, he was a Chinese military leader who played a huge role in the Taiping Rebellion in the 1800s, according to HuffPost. He is said to have loved eating what is now known as General Tso's chicken, but this is more folklore than fact. Smithsonian Magazine notes that the chicken dish wasn't invented until the 1950s, when a chef named Peng Chang-kuei created it for his restaurant in Taiwan. Although he fled China, Peng was from the same Chinese province as General Tso and named the dish after him (via Huffington Post).

The General Tso's chicken we eat in the U.S. today is very different from Peng's original creation. As Smithsonian Magazine explains, the chef's version was notably not fried and not sweet. The version familiar to most Americans was introduced in the '70s by a New York City-based chef named Tsung Ting Wang, who took Peng's recipe and altered it to cater to American taste buds by adding sugar and minimizing Hunanese flavors. Peng eventually opened his own restaurant in New York, and while initially upset about what had been done to his recipe, he relented and accepted the Americanized version of his dish.