general tso’s chicken

Netflix is running a documentary called The Search for General Tso, which is about the origin of a dish called “General Tso’s Chicken.” As you might imagine, the documentary starts with some obvious humor. Folks back in China have never heard of it, so the viewer believes that it is a fake “American Chinese” dish.

The story turns out to be richer than that. I won’t give away the details, but the film is an excellent overview of Chinese immigration and the role that Chinese restaurants have in helping migrants:

  • Chinese restaurants were given “territories” so they wouldn’t compete with each other, which explains why you find them in some far flung places.
  • There is an interesting economics of Chinese food. For example, Tso’s Chicken is inexpensive and appeals to the American desire for sweet and fried foods.
  • Even though Tso’s chicken is not commonly consumed in China, it actually has its origins there and was brought to the US through a rather bitter competition between two feuding Taiwanese chefs.
  • Chinese food is highly unstable in that it is easy to modify for various global audiences.

So General Tso’s chicken emerges from a very, very specific circumstance in the 1970s, but it “fits” in the long standing field of Chinese restaurants and quickly diffuses throughout the US. Great story of culture, economics, and organizational fields.

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Written by fabiorojas

September 1, 2015 at 12:01 am

Posted in fabio, food, Institutions

3 Responses

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  1. Thanks for the documentary recommendation. Adding it to the watch list. A minor critical comment, though: the second and fourth point are garish. How is the “economics of Chinese” food different from any other run of the mill fast food joint? And the phrase “Chinese food is highly unstable” – do we expect Chinese food to be a system tending towards equilibrium? These are semi-ridiculous points (my phrasing, not your notes), so thanks for the recommendation I am about to scour Netflix for the flick.



    September 1, 2015 at 3:09 am

  2. Thanks for the recommendation Fabio. My understanding is that fortune cookies have a similar convoluted history, although they somehow diffused from Kyoto bakeries to American Chinese restaurants thanks to the Japanese-American internment.



    September 1, 2015 at 3:33 am

  3. Thanks for the tip. My office whiteboard has “Chinese Food” on the list of possible future topics to write about — looks like Netflix got there first! I look forward to watching it.



    September 2, 2015 at 1:27 pm

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