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Why General Tso’s chicken is so popular in America — but not mainland China

A former secretary of state helped make the chicken popular in the US. But it never really took off in China.

General Tso’s chicken is freaking delicious. And thankfully, it’s enormously popular in America’s Chinese restaurants, making it easy to purchase and even get delivered to your door at 1 am on a Saturday.

But you might be surprised to learn that General Tso’s chicken is actually not very big in China — and it doesn’t even originate from mainland China. In fact, it hasn’t even been around for long: Its creation is widely credited to Peng Chang-kuei (who recently died) in 1952.

As Great Big Story explained in the video above, the story goes like this: During the Chinese civil war, much of the country’s old political leadership fled to Taiwan in the late 1940s. Peng, the chef to China’s acting president, went with them.

In 1952, Peng was cooking dinner for a visiting diplomatic envoy. He wanted to make something very special. So he made a unique kind of chicken, naming it after General Tso Tsung-t’ang, who is revered in Hunan, Peng’s hometown back in mainland China. (As Peng’s son told Great Big Story, “General Tso's chicken is a symbol of Hunan flavor.”)

After his chicken became a hit in Taiwan, Peng brought the dish to the United States, particularly New York City. It also became a big success here, largely thanks to glowing media coverage about how much then–Secretary of State Henry Kissinger loved it.

As word spread, imitators popped up. They added sugar, sauces, and spices to the dish — to the point that General Tso’s chicken in much of the US doesn’t even taste like the original.

But funnily enough, the recipe never took off in mainland China. So as America and Taiwan gobble it up, much of mainland China doesn’t even know about it.

Watch: Why we learn to love spicy food

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