Lunch today, leftover's from Lilac Blossom a few nights ago, brought this nagging question back into my mind.
Twenty or so years ago, I had never heard of General Tso's Chicken. I had been in a lot of Chinese restaurants, but never seen it. I was living here in Nashua, a total wasteland in terms of Chinese restaurants. There were five of them, all very bad. Then Ming Garden opened, the first good Chinese food in town, and on their menu was something called Jordan Chicken. It was similar to what I would eventually come to know as General Tso's Chicken, but the sauce was lighter and more subtle. The chunks of chicken were larger. It quickly became one of my favorites.
Ming closed a couple of years ago, sad to say, so now Jordan Chicken is no more, but General Tso's Chicken is everywhere. Ming was just the first good Chinese restaurant in Nashua. Several others followed, and I soon noticed that other restaurants all had General Tso's Chicken on the menu. Or General Gau's Chicken, or just General's Chicken. And as I visited Chinese restaurants in many other places, I found General Tso's Chicken on the menu in the majority. It had come out of nowhere and quickly turned into one of the dishes by which a new Chinese restaurant is judged. How good is the Hot and Sour Soup? The Twice Cooked Pork? The Pot-Stickers (or "Peking Ravioli", which seems to be the New England name)? And the General Tso's Chicken?
The way my mind works, it was not long after I realized that this dish had suddenly become so popular that I first asked "If he was chicken, how did he get to be a General?" And after the groans in response, I clarified..."Well... who was General Tso? What did he do to get a chicken dish named after him? Since nobody ever heard of him a few years ago, and now he's on all the menus, does that mean that he's a recent hero of some sort? Does anybody know?" Nobody did.
That's the sort of thing that I don't drop. It may not be important enough to actually answer the question, but it's important not to just drop it and forget it. And so, for the past twenty years, I bring it back up again. I get the groans, and the puzzled looks, and the "How should I know, and why on earth would I care?" reactions. And usually I leave it at that, knowing that I've got plenty of time to come back to it again later.
But today, as I was finishing off the leftovers, I decided to ask Google. It seems that The Washington Post asked a similar question and put a reporter on the story a few years ago, resulting in the article Who Was General Tso, And Why Are We Eating His Chicken?. And I also found The Definitive General Tso's Chicken page. Both conclude that General Tso, a real 19th century General -- not a chicken by any means, had nothing to do with the dish named after him. It came out of midtown Manhattan in the 1970s as Cantonese style restaurants gave way to Hunan and Szechuan style. It's not clear which restaurant first concocted it or chose the name, possibly Peng's on E. 44th Street, or Shun Lee Palace on E 55th Street. In either case, the fact that it first appeared here in New Hampshire about ten years later makes a good bit of sense.
1. kudla09/18/2005 02:53:05 PM
Richard, talk to me fellow Nashuan.
What several good ones?
Lilac Blossom is not bad, but over-priced.
Chen Li or whatever its called on Amherst Street, across from the bowling alley, you can have.
Ming Garden used to be very good, but they were going steadily down-hill, for several years before they closed. If memory serves, it had something to do with a kitchen conflict, an illegal aliens....
What else you got?
2. Richard Schwartz09/18/2005 03:33:00 PM
There's a new place downtown called Jasmine Palace that we've only been to a couple of times. It's not as good as Ming, certainly, but again it's far better than what we had back in the bad old days where we had Kahala, Halua, Golden Dragon, that place next to where Pheasant Lane went in (maybe the name was "Singapore"??). The worst of the bunch was the place that was on the Ming Garden property but burned down in 1984. I've blocked the name out of my mind. And oh, yeah.. Midori, where you could die of old age waiting for your food.
There was a place south of Ming on Daniel Webster, where Lui Lui's is now. It didn't last long, but was reasonably good. During one of Ming's declining periods, we were fairly regular customers there. Ming went in cycles. One of the original managers is actually a neighbor of ours. Ming tended to get better when they let him do what he wanted, but worse when the owners did what they wanted instead. Not sure about the illegal aliens bit, but I wouldn't be all that surprised.
The other one of the two original managers of Ming left and opened up You You Bistro up on Broad Street -which isn't Chinese. It's nominally Japanese, but actually more of a nouveau Asian place. The service isn't great but, not nearly as bad as Midori, and the food is very nice.
Chen Yang Li is very good. I grant that, but I don't go there. At least not when I'm paying. It's not so good that it's worth the prices they charge.
Lilac Blossom is good, and I don't think the prices are too out of line. We probably go there or do takeout an average of once a month.
Mandarin up on Amherst St. has been there for years. It's not great, but it sure beats anything we had here back before Ming opened in '85. In fact, just about any one of the little storefront places that have popped up in recent years -- such as Lucky Panda way, way out on Amherst Street and various others whose names aren't even important because they tend not to last all that long -- are better than what we used to have before Ming. Even the fast food place in the mall is better than what we used to have before Ming!
On top of that, we now have what... four Japanese restaurants, including the one that just went in on the Ming property, and a couple of Thai places, and a Vietnamese place (on Main St., though I won't swear that it's still there).
And then there's Schwartz's Kitchen. I've gotten to be quite a decent Asian-style cook over the years. Maybe one of these days I'll decide it's time to work harder than I've ever worked in my life and open a restaurant
3. chaosreins02/14/2006 04:46:01 PM
has anyone tried the hole-in-the-wall "#1 restaurant" on main street?
4. Richard Schwartz02/14/2006 05:06:09 PM
Actually, I've thought about it, but never tried it.
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