Our culinary horizons are arguably broader than they've ever been. Even in small towns, you can walk down a busy street and pass an Indian restaurant, a sushi place, a Chinese takeout. In bigger cities, spongy injera, bibimbap, baba ghanoush, Szechuan peppercorn-laced tofu, mole sauce, fettucine, pho are all there to choose from.
But sometimes what you might think of as an exotic food was actually invented much closer to home. And the people back in its supposed country of origin may have no idea it exists.
Take General Tso's chicken, one of the most beloved Chinese dishes in the United States, as well as many other places. Chunks of crispy deep-fried chicken slathered in a sweet, gooey sauce are on Chinese restaurant tables from San Francisco to Omaha, Nebraska to London. But as British chef Fuschia Dunlop found when she lived in Hunan, the dish's erstwhile origin point, no one there had heard of it. In fact, it's unheard of anywhere in China. It doesn't even taste like a typical Hunanese dish.
Pizza started thin and simply flavoured in Italy, but in America they're bigger and boast many more ingredients (Credit: iStock)
General Tso was a real person. He was a Hunanese military figure involved in the effort to put down the Taiping Rebellion, a violent uprising in mid-19th Century China whose leader claimed to be the younger brother of Christ, and which almost succeeded in toppling the Qing Dynasty. But as far as we know from the history books, he died without manifesting any particular interest in deep-fried chicken. The liaison between his name and the now-beloved dish, Dunlop writes, was an act of its inventor, the Hunanese chef Peng Chang-kuei.
Peng, a celebrated chef for China's nationalist government, fled to Taiwan after the Communist Revolution in 1949. He concocted the dish after leaving the Mainland, and as he first cooked it, it was not so much sweet as sour. General Tso's chicken made it to the United States by way of New York restaurateurs who'd eaten Peng's invention in Taipei. Over time, it morphed into its sweet, sticky, almost unrecognisable current form, apparently in response to American preferences, which tend more to the sweet than Hunanese folks'. In the 2014 documentary The Search for General Tso, which traces its origins, the filmmakers show 96-year-old Chef Peng photos of the modern American version. “This is all crazy nonsense,” he mutters.
Chicken tikka masala, that luscious combination of thick orange sauce and chicken chunks, may be Indian in flavour, but it seems it may have been invented in Britain
The same descriptor could probably be applied to another delicious adaptation of Chinese food: the chow mein sandwich. This peculiar meal, consisting of fried noodles with dark brown gravy served between two pieces of bread, was a cheap, carb-on-carb lunch option at Chinese restaurants in the region of Fall River, Massachusetts, just south of Boston, starting in the mid-20th Century. These were the same kinds of places where you could get chop suey, thought to have originated as a dish of offal and vegetables in western Guangdong Province, where many Chinese emigrants came from.
General Tso's chicken tastes nothing like other dishes from the region it's supposed to hail from (Credit: iStock)
Its fame across the rest of the world, however, is as a stir-fry of sprouts, meat, and vegetables in almost endless variations, in a thickened sauce. It even became a by-word for any mess of ingredients mixed together, as in the case of American chop suey, a slurry of macaroni, ground beef, and vegetables that might show up at New England church suppers.
Still, the creativity of hungry people is hardly limited to originally Chinese foods. Chicken tikka masala, that luscious combination of thick orange sauce and chicken chunks, may be Indian in flavour, but it seems it may have been invented in Britain – although some of the most well-known stories about its origins turn out to not stand up to scrutiny. In a detailed Roads and Kingdoms feature, journalist Mark Hay lays out exactly what is known about chicken tikka masala's story.
Even pizza – good old pizza – was a rather unimportant meal of flatbread when Italian immigrants began to arrive in the United States in the 19th Century. Its elaboration into a crispy, cheesy, topping-coated wonder, emblematic of Italian cuisine, seems to have happened mainly during its exile. Scholars even use the phrase “the pizza effect” to describe when something leaves its place of origin, changes almost beyond recognition (while being celebrated as part of that place's culture), and then returns, as a completely different entity, to its bemused home country.
Chicken tikka masala may seem Indian, but it's aimed squarely at a British palate (Credit: iStock)
In this culinary game of telephone, there are probably no real losers. New foods are adapted to local palates, sometimes becoming classics of their own. If later on a taste for the “authentic” version emerges, well, so much the better.
There's no denying the results can be strange, though. If you do ever find yourself in China, seek out the foreign-foods section of a cafeteria to see a kind of mirror image of chop suey. There, you may observe that exotic Western dish – just like Mum used to make! – a slice of American cheese melted over a plate of fried rice and greens.
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