Arts and Entertainment | Arts and Entertainment Columns

Found in Translation: Saluting General Tso, whoever he was

Contrary to what I initially thought, General Tso’s chicken isn’t really a Chinese dish. 

In fact, it’s not even typically eaten by Chinese in Asia. It was (at least, so Google and Wikipedia reveal) probably invented, and definitely most consumed, in America. And, believe it or not, I had never tried it until I came to New York. 

So, the first time an American mentioned General Tso’s to me as his favorite Chinese dish, I was more than a little confused. How could a self-proclaimed Asian foodie not know what he was referring to?

I did eventually try it, of course, and I must say it does taste rather Chinese. Even though it was a new dish, it didn’t exactly taste foreign to me. If anything, the version I had at John Jay Dining Hall actually reminded me of home. How, then, could I expect anyone to realize it was an American invention?

The funny thing about treating food as heritage is that it’s far harder to determine the cultural origins of food than most people think. Crème brûlée is as essential to Cambridge’s Trinity College as it is to France. Toro, currently the most expensive cut of bluefin tuna sashimi, first gained popularity not in Japan but in America. And although pizza originated in Italy, Chicago has come up with a version to claim as its own. 

In Singapore, we compete with Malaysia over whether what we call our food is really, culturally ours. When we declared chicken rice to be our national dish, the Malaysians were outraged—they reacted by claiming ownership of the delicacy themselves.

Similarly, it’s difficult to determine if General Tso’s chicken is really Chinese. It certainly tastes Chinese, but it was created here in America. However, if it is served exclusively in Chinese restaurants here, wouldn’t that still make it Chinese?

That is what I love about New York. This city is so cosmopolitan that it can take whatever culture comes its way and turn it into its own. Although I can taste the Chinese in General Tso’s chicken, it’s still a special New York dish in my mind. At the end of the day, it is both—and quite wonderfully so.

That’s what I like to tell people back home about New York. Back in Singapore, food plays a huge part in social culture. My mother shows me love by cooking for me, people bond by checking out cafés and restaurants together, and nearly everyone asks me if I miss Singaporean food when I’m here.

I usually hesitate before answering, but I always end up telling them the same thing: not really. Not when there is a cart selling dumplings just beyond the Broadway gate, Legend is just a stone’s throw away, and even a restaurant selling Malaysian and Singaporean food is a short walk from campus. Sure, it’s not entirely the same as eating what my mother cooks or what hawkers in Singapore serve, but it’s enough to satisfy all of my random Asian food cravings.

We often forget that cultural boundaries can be quite arbitrarily constructed and imposed. And that applies to the way we sometimes obsess over where our food comes from.

So who cares if General Tso’s chicken confuses me? It tastes almost like home—and that is more than enough to keep me happily fed in this city.

Joanna  Lee is a first-year in Columbia College from Singapore. Found in Translation runs alternate Fridays.

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