Interview: Ian Cheney

In what I’m sure will come as a shock to only half the people who read this, the North American Chinese restaurant staple Cashew Chicken isn’t actually an authentic Chinese dish. In one of the many facts talked about in filmmaker Ian Cheney’s documentary The Search for General Tso (which plays this Wednesday and Thursday as the February edition of Hot Docs’ Doc Soup series at The Bloor Hot Docs Cinema), it turns out that the beloved fried and sweet dish was concocted by a struggling Chinese restauraunteur in Springfield, Missouri who had to find a clever new way of adapting his own ethnic cuisine for the palates of Middle America.

Naturally, Cheney’s film focuses predominantly on the titular dish – the sweetly spicy, often glowing magenta fried chicken dish often served with broccoli – and its origin, but despite looking at the ubiquity of Chinese food, the film also functions as a look at how foreign cultures and tastes have been adapted for the American marketplace.

“Something that Italian-American students [in a class that I teach] are quick to point out to me is that spaghetti and meatballs isn’t remotely an Italian dish that you could actually find on a menu in any Italian restaurant. It’s the same way with almost every dish that has become popular in mainstream Chinese restaurants.” Cheney said on the phone from New York on a snowy afternoon last week.

“Coming up with this story certainly made me – and I hope it makes others – raise some eyebrows about other ethnic dishes in America whether it’s General Tso’s chicken, fortune cookies, meatballs, or even the California Roll. It would be exciting if Americans could dig deeper into what they’re eating. I do think that homogeneity threatens the culture of food as a whole, but that’s also a trick to questioning authenticity. I like to think of dishes like these as the beginning of a quest that makes us all more willing to try new things. It can also be seen as a celebration of culinary fusion and experimentation. So the question of authenticity is certainly one that I’m of two minds about when it comes up.”

The Search for General Tso - Ian Cheney
Ian Cheney


Cheney (who previously worked on the documentary King Corn, which looked at the personal side of farming America’s most heavily subsidized and homogenized cash crop), like many North Americans, never really questioned the heritage of his food when he was growing up.

“I wish I could recall the first time I had General’s Chicken, but it’s probably an unspectacular story in hindsight,” he jokes. “It was probably when I was growing up in Massachusetts and I would go out to dinner with my parents at one of the many funky, Polynesian inspired Chinese restaurants that were in the area. You know, the kind of place where you could order a Pu-Pu Platter – which is just a whole bunch of appetizers on a tray with a little mini-sterno grill in the middle – and all the drinks came in Tiki-looking mugs with paper umbrellas in them? I think the first time I had it I really liked it because it was sweet and different and fried. That’s the kind of dish that has everything you would potentially love eating when you’re a kid.”

Cheney had the idea to make a film about the hidden secrets of cultural cuisine for quite some time, but almost abandoned the idea before one of his film’s producers and resident experts – journalist Jennifer 8. Lee, who will be on hand for the Thursday screening of the film for a Q&A – published a book with a chapter devoted entirely to the search for the real facts behind General Tso.

“We had started doing a lot of research not too long after King Corn, but it quickly got relegated to the back burner for a variety of reasons. Then when Jenny published her book, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, it contained an entire chapter devoted to the same thing we were initially looking at covering. So we met with her – over Chinese food, actually – and talked about her helping us out. This isn’t an adaptation of her work per say, but we definitely built a lot of what we had based off her research and contacts. Before, what we had was very bare bones levels of research and we were still trying to feel out what the story would end up becoming. Roughly half the experts we have in the film were people that Jenny had interviewed previously or at least knew about, and the other half we kind of stumbled upon during production.”

The Search for General Tso

Naturally, there’s a huge historical component to The Search for General Tso because while Tso was indeed a highly renowned military figure from the time of the Chinese Revolution, there’s absolutely no chance he ever tasted (or probably would have even enjoyed) the dish that was named after him.

“It’s certainly a somewhat whimsical premise for a documentary, but when we were doing our research it became quickly clear, even early on, that this would be a film that’s less about individual restaurants and chefs, and more a larger window into what it meant to be Chinese.”

The search for the actual “authorship” of the dish goes back as far as the California Gold Rush and a time when Chinese immigrants were shunned and persecuted despite being a source of cheap and exploitable labour, before culminating in a rivalry between a chef in 1970s New York City and the real Taiwanese creator of the recipe. The movement from the American West (which was becoming a dangerous place to stay) to Middle America saw the opening of more Chinese owned businesses in smaller, relatively safer communities. When those communities started to rebel against their new foreign neighbours, many restaurant owners had to think quickly for ways to better integrate themselves into their new communities. These restaurants today comprise a billion dollar a year industry just based on sales of the film’s titular subject alone.

“There’s a give and take, but in spite of everything that some of these people had to go through, there’s a lot to be surprised and delighted about in terms of how people in different corners of the country and different corners of the world have found ways of adapting to the needs of their communities. It’s encouraging that Chinese Food has become so ubiquitous because it’s exciting to see people striving towards trying new things and a challenge to figure out what each community will be drawn to. Chinese restaurants have gone from the “chop suey” era to become local institutions in many cases. The story of every Chinese restaurant is a mixture of history and cuisine that’s pretty diverse. I know that some people would tend to argue about the lasting contributions to food culture that these restaurants have had, and that’s a pretty divisive topic once you get into it. Some people like to compare it to the prevalence of fast food, but I personally don’t see that comparison, especially when you look at how much more centralized the fast food industry is. Similar restaurants could have similar dishes, but outside of the chain Chinese restaurants, none of them have the same sense of history behind them.”

Even as a meal, General Tso’s Chicken (which goes by many different names and slight to major variations) has proven a divisive point of discussion, with many debates raging about the more original spicy version of the dish or the sweeter, sugar aided stickiness of the North American version. After having eaten many plates of the stuff from around the world, Cheney doesn’t seem hesitant in his answer as to which he thinks is the better chicken.

“Having been fortunate enough to try the real General Tso’s chicken, I would have to say I like the spicier version at this stage. I think when I was a kid I definitely would have liked it sweeter because I didn’t really have a palate that was capable of appreciating spice, but really now there’s not much comparison for me between the two.”

Director Ian Cheney will be in attendance at The Bloor Hot Docs Cinema to introduce the film and answer questions following the Wednesday screenings at 6:30pm and 9:15pm, and producer Jennifer 8. Lee will be in attendance for a Q&A at the Thursday screening at 6:45pm. The Thursday screening is currently sold out, but rush tickets will be available at the door.

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