'The Search for General Tso': SIFF Review

The Search for General Tso Still Tribeca - H 2014
Tribeca Film Festival

The Search for General Tso Still Tribeca - H 2014

Quirky food doc is more fun and more enlightening than an investigation into a menu item should be.

Ian Cheney finds the origins of the ubiquitous Chinese-restaurant dish.

SEATTLE — Like the topping-loaded flatbread Americans call pizza, General Tso's Chicken is a dish with only a tenuous connection to the country whose cuisine is ostensibly represents. In tracing the origins of this restaurant staple, Ian Cheney's The Search for General Tso is as much an immigration history as a culinary one, observing how a people who were demonized as low-wage laborers found entrepreneurial success in small and large towns across the country. Festival auds should eat it up, with urban foodies supporting a limited theatrical run before the film hits VOD.

Noting at least 15 different spellings and numerous pronunciations of the General's name on American restaurant menus (thanks to collector Harley Spiller, who has more than 10,000 of them), the film flirts with the possibility that Tso was fictional before taking us to the real man's hometown in Hunan province. There we see his name on everything from hotels and schools to booze — but no chicken. Cheney can't find anyone who has even heard of the dish in Shanghai; when shown a picture, one interviewee doesn't even think it looks like fowl.

Before he uncovers the dish's roots (spoiler alert: he finds both its creator and the better-known chef who tweaked the recipe and made a fortune off it), Cheney embarks on a breezy history of Chinese immigration to America. We learn that the proliferation of Chinese-owned restaurants and laundries was the effect of a post-Gold Rush law that prohibited Chinese laborers from entering the country: Immigrants found a formula for starting their own businesses instead of working for others, and it spread.

Taking a long hiatus from the Tso question, Cheney visits restaurants throughout Middle America, looking at the ways immigrants made their food palatable to white customers. Only after decades of bland chop suey did urban restaurateurs attempt to sell their customers the real deal, and it was many years after that before restaurants began to specialize in the cuisines of specific regions.

Once he tracks down the Tso recipe's inventor and accounts for its 1970s explosion in popularity, Cheney finds subjects ready to question the original issue of authenticity, asking how much it matters if the dish tastes like "real Chinese food" at all. All cuisines evolve, even on their home turf. With today's American chowhounds enjoying a diversity of hybrids from Mexican-Chinese to hipster faux-Chinese-American, what does it matter if General Tso even liked poultry?

Production company: Wicked Delicate Films

Director-Screenwriter: Ian Cheney

Producers: Jennifer 8 Lee, Amanda Murray

Director of photography: Taylor Gentry

Editor: Frederick Shanahan

Music: Ben Fries, Simon Beins

No rating, 72 minutes