The hunt for a mystery man of Chinese-American cuisine spreads out across the globe in “The Search for General Tso,” an ebullient inquiry into the origins of that staple dish of Chinese restaurants far and wide: General Tso’s chicken. Who was this General Tso? And did he really like to eat chicken? Such are the penetrating questions director Ian Cheney (“King Corn”) sets out to answer in this generously entertaining docu — a kind of culinary “Searching for Sugar Man” — which also finds room for a thoughtful account of the Chinese-American experience, from the building of the railroads to the age of Panda Express. A welcome addition to the sudden surfeit of quality foodie docus, the pic boasts high-end production values and breezy pacing that should help it to win the hearts, minds and stomachs of niche auds in limited theatrical and VOD release.
Cheney is far from the first to venture down the General Tso breadcrumb trail, previously discussed in detail by the British food writer Fuchsia Dunlop (interviewed onscreen here) in her 2007 “Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook.” But even for those familiar with the tale, Cheney spins it in irresistible fashion, bounding intrepidly from New York to China to small-town, flyover America as he turns his camera upon a genial assortment of historians, chefs, critics and unclassifiable eccentrics like Harley Spiller, a Guinness-certified record holder for the world’s largest collection of restaurant menus, and David Chan, a tax accountant who claims to have eaten at more than 6,000 Chinese restaurants.
There was, of course, a real General Tso, a valiant 19th-century military commander in China’s Hunan province, where, as Cheney discovers, there are a great many things named in the general’s honor, but none having anything to do with poultry. Indeed, just how the good general became forever linked to a certain recipe of deep-fried chicken nuggets bathed in soy sauce and topped with chili peppers proves a thornier mystery — one that takes the movie on a series of engaging detours through the history of early Chinese migration to America; the discriminatory 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act that forced emigres out of the labor market and into small business ownership; the modification of “exotic” Chinese cuisine for sensitive American tastes (hello, chop suey!); and the foodie renaissance of the 1960s and ’70s that brought high-end, authentic Chinese cooking to the tables of America’s major cities.
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Cheney logs significant face time with the likes of Cecilia Chiang, whose restaurant, the Mandarin, revolutionized Chinese cuisine in San Francisco; historian and Red Farm restaurateur Ed Schoenfeld; and Michael Tong of New York’s Shun Lee restaurants, which end up playing a key role in the unraveling of the General Tso enigma. But the film spends just as much time journeying to such unlikely outposts as Springfield, Mo. — home, we learn, of the original recipe for “cashew chicken” — and other, even smaller dots on the map where Chinese people may be in short supply but Chinese food is never hard to find.
Eventually, the quixotic “search” of the movie’s title seems secondary to that more arduous quest of so many Chinese-Americans to find their place in a country that did not always welcome them with open arms, and how food forged the path of least resistance.