MOVIES THAT DON’T SUCK: Learn the history of your favorite MSG-filled treat in ‘The Search for General Tso’

The best kind of documentary/informative movie is one that answers questions you would never think to ask. For example, I have never particularly cared about how bouncy balls are manufactured, yet I dedicated an hour of my time to learning the intimate details of the process on an episode of “How It’s Made.”

Another such question (or rather, questions) that few people ask themselves is “Why do all Chinese food restaurants serve staples like Orange Chicken and General Tso’s Chicken and, for that matter, who even was General Tso?”

Those questions (particularly the latter) are answered in the 2014 documentary, “The Search for General Tso,” which not only teaches us about the dish itself, but provides insight into the culture of Chinese-American food as a whole.

The film was directed by Ian Chaney and produced by Jennifer 8 Lee (yes, that’s an eight) and Amanda Murray. In 2008, Lee wrote a book entitled “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles,” which covers the history of  Chinese food in America. Six years later, that research formed the basis for “The Search for General Tso” – if  in a much more abbreviated form.

Even this abbreviated length is a bit of a stretch, as the film tends to meander – although who could blame the filmmakers? The film’s main question, “Where did General Tso’s Chicken come from?” could be answered in a five-minute YouTube video.

Despite being almost completely unknown to most people in America, General Zuo Zongtang (Romanized as Tso) is extremely well known to the people of his homeland. Zuo was a Hunanese military leader for the Qing Dynasty who was instrumental to its victory in the Taiping Rebellion. Long story short, he became a folk hero, and a Hunanese chef cooking for Chiang Kai-Shek in Taiwan grew homesick and named a dish after him. About a year later, that dish was promptly stolen by a visiting immigrant who took it back to the restaurant he ran in New York. The rest, as they say, is history.

No, seriously. Sprinkle some more names, graphics and talking heads, and that would just about wrap up the mystery.

Like I said: a bit brief.

Rather than just padding the run time with an overly detailed account of the dish’s creation and the exploits of its namesake, “The Search for General Tso” gives us a history of the creation of Chinese food culture in the United States as well as the atmosphere that allowed General Tso’s chicken to take off the way it did.

But enough about what the film does or does not tell us. How good is it?

For some reason the genre that pops up when you type the film’s name into Google is comedy/mystery. Don’t get me wrong. It’s lighthearted but it isn’t exactly Scooby Doo.  I wouldn’t say it’s tongue-in-cheek, but it carries itself with the same knowing self-importance that the narrators of such shows as “Modern Marvels” and “How It’s Made” so often use. (Sorry to name drop it again, but what can I say? I’m a fanboy.)

The graphics are bright and flashy. Every movement is accompanied by either a slicing sword sound or, in what I greatly appreciate as a loving embrace of stereotype, the cliched “Chinese” gong.

The myriad of interviewees, both talking heads and otherwise, is both varied and effective. It is a rare movie that fits in a Qing dynasty historian, a collector of Chinese restaurant menus, and the owner of a small Szechuan restaurant in the middle of Nowhere, New Mexico, into one documentary.

“The Search for General Tso” is a much more interesting documentary than its initial research question suggests. It answers all the questions you have about Chinese food in America. Even the ones you were afraid to ask in fear of being called out as racist.

Let me give you a free one. Yes, those restaurants you see in the middle of nowhere are placed strategically by associations for new Chinese-American immigrants, and, yes, those associations do have a map of the United States that looks not completely unlike an army’s map of strategic objectives.

—By Grant Miner

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