Friday, November 19, 2010

Who was General Tso, and What’s the deal with the Chicken?

I’ve purchased cars from General Motors.  I’ve had General Anesthesia.  I’ve seen movies about General Patton and General MacArthur.  But, who was General Tso, and what’s with his Chicken?

This question must have boggled the mind of everyone who has ever seen this famous dish listed on the menu in a Chinese restaurant.   Having never thought to ask anyone in any of the restaurants where I have ordered the Generals chicken, I felt the time was right to answer that age old question for you, our faithful  readers.

General Tso Tsungtang, or as his name is spelled in modern Pinyin, Zuo Zongtang, was born on Nov. 10, 1812, and died on Sept. 5, 1885. He was a frighteningly gifted military leader during the waning of the Qing dynasty, a figure perhaps the Chinese equivalent of the American Civil War commander William Tecumseh Sherman. He served with brilliant distinction during China's greatest civil war, the 14-year-long Taiping Rebellion, which claimed millions of lives.

Tso was utterly ruthless. He smashed the Taiping rebels in four provinces, put down an unrelated revolt called the Nian Rebellion, then marched west and reconquered Chinese Turkestan from Muslim rebels.

Arthur W. Hummel devotes five double-columned pages to the general in the monumental 1944 "Eminent Chinese of the Ch'ing Period (1644-1912)" published by the Library of Congress.

Tso emerges from several sources as a self-made man, born in Hunan province, a hilly hot-tempered heartland, whose cuisine
rivals that of Sichuan for sheer firepower. (While Sichuan food is hot right up front, in the mouth, in your face; Hunanese cuisine tends to build up inside you, like a slow charcoal fire, until you feel as though your belly is filled with burning coals.)

As a young man Tso flunked the official court exams three times, a terrible disgrace. He returned home, married and devoted himself to practical studies, like agriculture and geography. He took up silkworm farming and tea farming
and chose a gentle sobriquet, calling himself "The Husbandman of the River Hsiang." Like Sherman, stuck teaching at a military academy in Louisiana on the eve of the Civil War, he seemed washed up.

He was 38 when the Taiping Rebellion broke out in 1850. For the rest of his life, Tso would wield the sword, becoming one of the most remarkably successful military commanders in Chinese history.

The Taiping Rebellion -- a movement that in part advocated Christian doctrine -- nearly toppled the Qing dynasty. It was founded by Hong Xiuquan, a Chinese mystic who believed he was the younger brother of Jesus. The whole astonishing episode has been described admirably by Yale scholar Jonathan Spence in his "God's Chinese Son." (Norton, 1996).

Tso made war, and war made Tso. He began his military career as an adjutant and secretary for the governor of Hunan province. He raised a force of 5,000 volunteers and took the field in September 1860, driving the Taiping rebels out of Hunan and Guangxi provinces, into coastal Zhejiang. There he captured the big cities of Shaoxing, still famous for its sherrylike
rice wine. From there he pushed south into Fujian and Guangdong provinces, where the revolt had first begun and spread, and had crushed the Taipings by the time the rebellion ended in 1864.

The Taiping Rebellion was the greatest upheaval in 19th century China. It caused massive displacements and shifts in population. Hundreds of thousands of people fled or emigrated, many to America, where they worked building the transcontinental railroad, which was completed in 1869.

So now you know.  The General came from a part of China where the spiciest of foods are found, Hunan Province.  General Tso’s Chicken is no exception. It's generally served very spicy,  prepared with hot red chili peppers throughout. We've tamed this one down a bit. However, Judy and I like our foods to have a kick. You may want to have a few extra paper napkins available for wiping, should that become necessary.  

Please enjoy!

General Tso’s Chicken with Rice


General Tso's Chicken with Jasmine Rice
¾ cup chicken broth, low sodium, canned

1 ½ Tbsp cornstarch

2 Tbsp Sugar

2 Tbsp Soy Sauce, low sodium

1 Tbsp Apple Cider Vinegar

1 tsp Ginger, fresh, ground

2 tsp Peanut oil

2 medium Scallions, chopped

2 medium garlic cloves, minced

1 tsp Red pepper flakes

1 pound Chicken Breast, boneless, skinless, cut into 1 – 2 inch pieces

2 cups White Rice, cooked. (We prefer the Trader Joes Organic Jasmine Rice for this dish)


In a medium bowl, whisk together Broth, Cornstarch, Sugar, Soy sauce, Vinegar and Ginger. Set aside

Heat Oil in a wok or large skillet, over medium-high heat. Add Scallions, Garlic and Red Pepper flakes; Cook, stirring frequently for 2 minutes.

Add Chicken; Saute until the chicken has browned on all sides, about 5 minutes.

Add reserved Sauce to pan, reduce heat and simmer until sauce thickens and chicken is cooked through, about 3 minutes.

Serve Chicken and Sauce over Rice.

Yields about 1 Cup Chicken and ½ cup Rice per serving.  PointsPlus Value per serving is 7. 

Level of difficulty is Easy. Prep time is 20 minutes. Cooking time is 10 minutes.

Weight Watchers is a trademark of Weight Watchers Intl. Inc.

Photo by Barry Baruh

We welcome your comments

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the history on the General, I have always wondered about that! Beautiful presentation and love the chop stix!