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General Tso and his chicken caught in food fight at college cafeteria

By William Hennelly | China Daily USA | Updated: 2015-12-23 11:20

College protests have been in the news a lot this year, with "safe spaces", Halloween costumes and professors' "microaggressions" some of the flashpoints. But a more piquant issue has emerged from the dining halls of Oberlin College in Ohio.

It's an issue of "cultural appropriation" of food (not honoring a dish's native land with proper presentation), and the great General Tso of the Qing Dynasty (the last one) and his eponymous chicken are embroiled in the controversy along with other Asia-specific dishes, such as sushi (Japan), banh mi sandwiches (Vietnam) and Tandoori (India).

Some students at the $50,000-a-year private liberal arts school were steamed that the typically fried General Tso's chicken was served, well, steamed.

It's a paradox because General Tso's chicken is almost always deep fried (without regard to the arteries) and smothered in a hot, sweet sauce with dried red peppers, chives and broccoli flowers often sprinkled in the crunchy mix.

The fat, sugar and caloric content of the dish is incalculable (which adds to its appeal), and a steamed version would definitely be less fattening and more healthy.

But this culinary catastrophe isn't about nutrition. The students' argument is that changing the cooking method is disrespecting the Chinese dish's original recipe.

Legend (on Chinese restaurant paper place mats) has it that General Tso's chef called out sick one day, so the boss had to cook something up for a dinner party. Well the general whipped up his chicken dish, and the guests raved about it.

Legend aside, General Tso was definitely Chinese, but his signature dish is not from China. It's from New York.

According to The New York Times, the recipe was invented by Peng Jia, a Taiwan-based Hunan-cuisine chef who had been an apprentice of Cao Jingchen, a famous early 20th-century Chinese chef. Peng was the banquet chef for the Nationalist government and fled with Chiang Kai-shek's forces to Taiwan during the Chinese Civil War.

He stayed in that kitchen until 1973, when he moved to New York and opened a restaurant on East 44th Street in Manhattan.

One of Peng's new dishes - General Tso's chicken - was originally made without sugar and later adjusted to suit local palates. (Shun Lee's Palace, also in Manhattan, also claims General Tso's as its own.)

Peng opened a restaurant in Hunan province in the 1990s (it was unsuccessful), and guess what - locals found his General Tso's chicken too sweet.

Many menu items in Chinese restaurants across the United States are filled with the concoctions (chop suey, egg rolls, fortune cookies, chow mein) of Chinese immigrants that cater to their American patrons' tastes. (Many young Chinese-American chefs are staunch defenders of these dishes, too.)

There also has been a trend to offer traditional Chinese mainland food in the West, and we have covered its emergence in China Daily.

Some Chinese restaurants do serve a healthier version of General Tso's chicken (and its cousins sesame and orange chicken), but they do so by cutting down on the industrial strength batter, not so much by changing the cooking method.

Oberlin's director of dining services, Michele Gross, offered no defense of the college's grub and said that "in our efforts to provide a vibrant menu, we recently fell short in the execution of several dishes in a manner that was culturally insensitive. We have met with students to discuss their concerns and hope to continue this dialogue."

Minus the geopolitical provocation, this wouldn't have been a national story.

Perhaps it could have been handled this way: Excuse me, chef, but tomorrow when I come in for lunch, you think you might be able to fry the General Tso's instead of steaming it? Just a suggestion.

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