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Jennifer 8. Lee: Who was General Tso? and other mysteries of

Jennifer 8. Lee: Who was General Tso? and other mysteries of

There are more Chinese
restaurants in this country than McDonald’s, Burger King, Kentucky
Fried Chicken and Wendy’s, combined — 40,000, actually. Chinese restaurants have played
an important role in American history, as a matter of fact. The Cuban missile crisis was resolved
in a Chinese restaurant called Yenching Palace in Washington, DC, which unfortunately is closed now, and about to be turned into Walgreen’s. And the house where John Wilkes Booth planned the assassination
of Abraham Lincoln is also now a Chinese restaurant
called Wok and Roll, on H Street in Washington. (Laughter) And it’s not completely gratuitous, because “wok” and “roll” —
Chinese food and Japanese foods, so it kind of works out. And Americans love
their Chinese food so much, they’ve actually brought it into space. NASA, for example, serves
thermostabilized sweet-and-sour pork on its shuttle menu for its astronauts. So, let me present the question to you: If our benchmark
for Americanness is apple pie, you should ask yourself:
how often do you eat apple pie, versus how often do you eat Chinese food? (Laughter) And if you think about it, a lot of the foods that we or Americans
think of as Chinese food are barely recognizable to Chinese. For example: beef with broccoli,
egg rolls, General Tso’s Chicken, fortune cookies, chop suey,
the take-out boxes. For example, I took a whole bunch
of fortune cookies back to China, gave them to Chinese
to see how they would react. [What is this?] [Should I try it?] [Try it!] [What is this called?] [Fortune cookie.] (Laughter) [There’s a piece of paper inside!] (Laughter) [What is this?] [You’ve won a prize!] [What is this?] [It’s a fortune!] [Tasty!] So where are they from? The short answer is, actually,
they’re from Japan. And in Kyoto, outside, there are still
small family-run bakeries that make fortune cookies,
as they did over 100 years ago, 30 years before fortune cookies
were introduced in the United States. If you see them side by side, there’s yellow and brown. Theirs are actually flavored
with miso and sesame paste, so they’re not as sweet as our version. So how did they get to the US? Well, the short answer is,
the Japanese immigrants came over, and a bunch of the bakers
introduced them — including at least one in Los Angeles, and one here in San Francisco,
called Benkyodo, which is on the corner
of Sutter and Buchanan. Back then, they made fortune cookies
using very much the similar kind of irons that we saw back in Kyoto. The interesting question is: How do you go from fortune cookies
being something that is Japanese to being something that is Chinese? Well, we locked up all the Japanese
during World War II, including those that made fortune cookies. So that’s when the Chinese moved in, saw a market opportunity and took over. (Laughter) So, fortune cookies:
invented by the Japanese, popularized by the Chinese, but ultimately consumed by Americans. They’re more American than anything else. Another of my favorite dishes: General Tso’s Chicken —
which, by the way, in the US Naval Academy is called Admiral Tso’s Chicken. (Laughter) I love this dish. The original name of my book
was “The Long March of General Tso.” And he has marched very far indeed, because he is sweet, he is fried,
and he is chicken — all things that Americans love. (Laughter) He has marched so far, actually, that the chef who originally
invented the dish doesn’t recognize it;
he’s kind of horrified. Video: (In Chinese) Audience: (Laughter) He’s in Taiwan right now. He’s retired, deaf
and plays a lot of mah–jongg. After I showed him this, he got up, and says, “mòmíngqímiào,”
which means, “This is all nonsense,” and goes back to play his mah-jongg
game during the afternoon. Another dish, one of my favorites:
beef with broccoli. Broccoli is not a Chinese vegetable; in fact, it is originally
an Italian vegetable. It was introduced into
the United States in the 1800s, but became popularized
in the 1920s and the 1930s. The Chinese have their own version
of broccoli, called Chinese broccoli, but they’ve now discovered
American broccoli, and are importing it
as a sort of exotic delicacy. I guarantee you, General Tso
never saw a stalk of broccoli in his life. That was a picture of General Tso. I went to his home town. This is a billboard that says: “Welcome to the birthplace
of General Tso.” And I went looking for chicken. Finally found a cow — and did find chicken. Believe it or not, these guys
were actually crossing the road. (Laughter) And I found a whole bunch
of General Tso’s relatives who are still in the town. This guy is now five generations
removed from the General; this guy is about seven. I showed them the pictures
of General Tso Chicken, and they were like, “We don’t know this dish.
Is this Chinese food?” Because it doesn’t look
like Chinese food to them. But they weren’t surprised I traveled
around the world to visit them, because in their eyes he is, after all, a famous Qing dynasty military hero. He played an important role
in the Taiping Rebellion, a war started by a guy
who thought he was the son of God and baby brother of Jesus Christ. He caused a war that killed
20 million people — still the deadliest civil war
in the world to this day. So, you know, I realized when I was there, General Tso is kind of a lot
like Colonel Sanders in America, in that he’s known
for chicken and not war. But in China, this guy’s actually known
for war and not chicken. But the granddaddy
of all the Chinese American dishes we probably ought to talk
about is chop suey, which was introduced
around the turn of the 20th century. According to the New York Times in 1904, there was an outbreak
of Chinese restaurants all over town, and “… the city has gone
‘chop suey’ mad.” So it took about 30 years
before the Americans realized that chop suey is actually
not known in China, and as this article points out, “The average native of any city in China
knows nothing of chop suey.” Back then it was a way to show
you were sophisticated and cosmopolitan; a guy who wanted to impress a girl
could take her on a chop suey date. I like to say chop suey
is the biggest culinary joke one culture ever played on another, because “chop suey,”
translated into Chinese, means “jaahp-seui,” which, translated
back, means “odds and ends.” So, these people are going
around China asking for chop suey, which is sort of like a Japanese guy
coming here and saying, “I understand you have
a very popular dish in your country called ‘leftovers.'” (Laughter) Right? (Laughter) And not only that: “This dish is particularly popular after that holiday
you call ‘Thanksgiving.'” (Laughter) So, why and where did chop suey come from? Let’s go back to the mid-1800s, when the Chinese first came to America. Back then, Americans were not
clamoring to eat Chinese food. In fact, they saw these people
who landed at their shores as alien. These people weren’t eating dogs,
they were eating cats. If they weren’t eating cats,
they were eating rats. In fact, The New York Times,
my esteemed employer, in 1883 ran an article that asked, “Do Chinese eat rats?” Not the most PC question
to be asked today, but if you look at the popular
imagery of the time, not so outlandish. This is actually a real
advertisement for rat poison from the late 1800s. And if you see under the word
“Clears” — very small — it says, “They must go,”
which refers not only to the rats, but to the Chinese in their midst, because the way
that the food was perceived was that these people who ate
foods different from us must be different from us. Another way that you saw
this antipathy towards the Chinese is through documents like this. This is in the Library of Congress. It’s a pamphlet published
by Samuel Gompers, hero of our American labor movement. It’s called, “Some Reason
for Chinese Exclusion: Meat versus Rice: American Manhood
against Asiatic Coolieism: Which shall survive?” And it basically made the argument that Chinese men who ate rice would necessarily bring down
the standard of living for American men who ate meat. And as a matter of fact, then, this is one of the reasons
we must exclude them from this country. So, with sentiments like these, the Chinese Exclusion Act
was passed between 1882 and 1902, the only time in American history when a group was specifically excluded for its national origin or ethnicity. So in a way, because
the Chinese were attacked, chop suey was created
as a defense mechanism. Who came up with the idea of chop suey? There’s a lot of different
mysteries and legends, but of the ones I’ve found, the most interesting
is this article from 1904. A Chinese guy named Lem Sen shows up in Chinatown,
New York City, and says, “I want you all to stop making chop suey, because I am the original creator
and sole proprietor of chop suey. And the way he tells it, there was a famous Chinese
diplomat that showed up, and he was told to make a dish
that looked very popular and could, quote, “pass” as Chinese. And as he said —
we would never print this today — but basically, the American man
has become very rich. Lem Sen: “I would’ve made this money, too,
but I spent all this time looking for the American man
who stole my recipe. Now I’ve found him
and I want my recipe back, and I want everyone
to stop making chop suey, or pay me for the right to do the same. So it was an early exercise
of intellectual property rights. The thing is, this idea
of Chinese-American food doesn’t exist only in America. In fact, Chinese food
is the most pervasive food on the planet, served on all seven continents,
even Antarctica, because Monday night is Chinese
food night at McMurdo Station, which is the main scientific
station in Antarctica. You see different varieties
of Chinese food. For example, there is French Chinese food, where they serve
salt and pepper frog legs. There is Italian Chinese food,
where they don’t have fortune cookies, so they serve fried gelato. My neighbor, Alessandra,
was shocked when I told her, “Dude, fried gelato is not Chinese.” She’s like, “It’s not? But they serve it
in all the Chinese restaurants in Italy.” (Laughter) Even the Brits have their own version. This is a dish called
“crispy shredded beef,” which has a lot of crisp, a lot of shred,
and not a lot of beef. There is West Indian Chinese food,
there’s Jamaican Chinese food, Middle Eastern Chinese food,
Mauritian Chinese food. This is a dish called “Magic Bowl,”
that I discovered. There’s Indian Chinese food,
Korean Chinese food, Japanese Chinese food, where they take the bao, the little buns,
and make them into pizza versions. (Laughter) And they totally randomly
take Chinese noodle dishes, and just ramenize them. This is something that,
in the Chinese version, has no soup. So, there’s Peruvian Chinese food, which should not be mixed
with Mexican Chinese food, where they basically take things
and make it look like fajitas. (Laughter) And they have things
like risotto chop suey. My personal favorite
of all the restaurants I’ve encountered around the world was this one in Brazil,
called “Kung Food.” (Laughter) So, let’s take a step back and understand what is to be appreciated in America. McDonald’s has garnered
a lot of attention, a lot of respect, for basically standardizing the menu,
decor and dining experience in post-World War II America. But you know what? They did so through a centralized
headquarters out of Illinois. Chinese restaurants have done largely
the same thing, I would argue, with the menu and the decor,
even the restaurant name, but without a centralized headquarters. So, this actually became very clear to me with the March 30, 2005 Powerball drawing, where they expected, based
on the number of ticket sales they had, to have three or four
second-place winners, people who match
five or six Powerball numbers. Instead, they had 110,
and they were completely shocked. They looked all across the country
and discovered it couldn’t be fraud, since it happened in different states,
across different computer systems. Whatever it was, it caused people
to behave in a mass-synchronized way. So, OK, maybe it had to do
with the patterns on the pieces of paper, like it was a diamond, or diagonal. It wasn’t that, so they’re like,
OK, let’s look at television. So they looked at an episode of “Lost.” Now, I don’t have a TV, which makes me a freak,
but very productive — (Laughter) And there’s an episode of “Lost”
where one guy has a lucky number, but it’s not a lucky number,
it’s why he’s on the island, but they looked
and the numbers did not match. They looked at “The Young
and The Restless.” It wasn’t that, either. It wasn’t until the first guy shows up
the next day and they ask him, “Where did you get your number?” He said, “I got it from a fortune cookie.” This is a slip one of the winners had, because the Tennessee
lottery security officials were like, “Oh, no, this can’t be true.” But it was true. Basically, of those 110 people, 104 of them or so had gotten
their number from a fortune cookie. (Laughter) Yeah. So I went and started looking. I went across the country,
looking for these restaurants where these people had gotten
their fortune cookies from. There are a bunch of them,
including Lee’s China in Omaha — which is actually run by Koreans,
but that’s another point, and a bunch of them named “China Buffet.” What’s interesting is that their stories
were similar, but different. It was lunch, it was take-out,
it was sit-down, it was buffet, it was three weeks ago,
it was three months ago. But at some point, all these people
had a very similar experience that converged at a fortune cookie
and a Chinese restaurant. And all these restaurants
were serving fortune cookies, which, of course,
aren’t even Chinese to begin with. It’s part of the phenomenon
I called “spontaneous self-organization,” where, like in ant colonies,
little decisions made on the micro level actually have a big impact
on the macro level. A good contrast is Chicken McNuggets. McDonald’s actually spent 10 years
coming out with a chicken-like product. They did chicken pot pie, fried chicken,
and finally introduced Chicken McNuggets. And the great innovation of Chicken
McNuggets was not nuggifying them, that’s kind of an easy concept. The trick was, they were able
to remove the chicken from the bone in a cost-efficient manner, which is why it took so long
for people to copy them — 10 years, then within a couple months,
it was such a hit, they introduced it across the entire
McDonald’s system in the country. In contrast is General Tso’s Chicken, which actually started
in New York City in the early 1970s, as I was also started in this universe
in New York City in the early 1970s. (Laughter) And this logo! So me, General Tso’s Chicken
and this logo are all karmicly related. But that dish also took about 10 years
to spread across America from a restaurant in New York City. Someone’s like, “It’s sweet,
it’s fried, it’s chicken — Americans will love this.” So what I like to say,
this being Bay Area, Silicon Valley, is that we think of McDonald’s as sort
of the Microsoft of dining experiences. We can think of Chinese
restaurants perhaps as Linux, sort of an open-source thing, right? (Laughter) Where ideas from one person
can be copied and propagated across the entire system, that there can be specialized
versions of Chinese food, depending on the region. For example, in New Orleans
we have Cajun Chinese food, where they serve Sichuan alligator
and sweet and sour crawfish. And in Philadelphia,
you have Philadelphia cheesesteak roll, which is like an egg roll on the outside
and cheesesteak on the inside. I was surprised to discover that not only
in Philadelphia, but also in Atlanta. What had happened was, a Chinese family had moved
from Philadelphia to Atlanta, and brought that with them. So the thing is, our historical lore,
because of the way we like narratives, is full of vast characters,
such as Howard Schultz of Starbucks and Ray Kroc with McDonald’s and Asa Candler with Coca-Cola. But, you know, it’s very easy
to overlook the smaller characters. For example, Lem Sen,
who introduced chop suey, Chef Peng, who introduced
General Tso’s Chicken, and all the Japanese bakers
who introduced fortune cookies. So, the point of my presentation
is to make you think twice; that those whose names
are forgotten in history can often have had as much, if not more, impact on what we eat today. Thank you very much. (Applause)


Damn. And I thought I was being sophisticated for eating Chinese food. Oh well, it still tastes great no matter where it comes from.
Great presentation.
I even love the finger gesture at 8:50.

This was so awesome. A+++ on the presentation. I loved it, it was funny, it was informative, and it answered so many things that I've often wondered.

also there is no such thing as universal chinese food, most of the authentic chinese cuisine outside of China is from Canton region.

you do have a point in that much of the information she gives is trivial, but i think you can rescue some important points of the presentation.
First, is the notion of descentralized system in which all this innovative ideas spread without apparent coordination in a way that also works as an organized and centralized system. This kind of questions are applicable to anything, from cooking to other more "relevant" social issues.

This is funny! My social studies teacher is actually making us fill out a work sheet for this!

when my parents went to the US, they were amused to find chop suey on the menus of chinese restaurants there. chop suey is what my mother makes with left overs after a large banquet. it's usually made up of various vegetables, meat, and flavoured with vinegar and a kind of sour fruit.

it tastes best with leftover duck or pork.

Yes (I just found that out from another article myself). When pronounced in Chinese It rhymes with auspiciousness or imminent fortune.

Applause for the "apple pie" versus "Chinese food" comment…definitely fits for this red-blooded American male. 🙂

Applause for the "apple pie" versus "Chinese food" comment…definitely fits for this red-blooded American male. 🙂

@Horace01 i hope you die the most painful of deaths you blatantly pig ignorant fool. Your blanket statements based upon where someone is born is actually racist you hypocritical tool how do you get up and look yourself in the mirror in the morning considering how fucking stupid you really are…. and by the way im not american so halt your stupid american speech.

Freudian slip? She flicks off the audience as she talks about Chinese not being allows to immigrate into the US for 100 years. 8:49


LOL! She totally flipped everyone off. Yes, very definitely a Freudian slip, or perhaps even intentional.

The hypocrisy Americans are just like their ancestors one centernary ago. They eliminated the Indian population, but they failed to do the same thing with other westerners on Chinese. Now it is the time for them to pay the price, they will learn their lesson.

27 people thought they were being debonair when eating "odds and ends."

/And probably can't use chopsticks, either.

I grew up with Indian chinese food, then came to canada to eat what I thought was 'actual chinese food', but now I realise it may have been Canadian Chinese food I am having :P. So confusing…yet so tasty!!

i don't think you understand this presentation. why can't you just let go of your slimy narrow mindedness?? go back to school and get some education.

?? I found a comment humorous a year ago and thus I'm narrow minded? You got me. Nevermind the fact I watched the whole thing for the purpose learning about the origins of a particular type of Chinese food, or that I regularly travel the world and consider myself a citizen of no particular country, or the fact that I'm a masters student. Yeah you're right, damn me and my narrow mind. *shakes head and departs YouTube*

not sure you understood the comment you're criticizing… =_= i am wondering about the logical leap you had to make to get to narrow minded from that comment…

Excellent presentation and so glad someone finally revealed this.
And if someone complains about her talking too fast, perhaps it's because their brain operates at snail speed an are likely compulsive complainers because of this brain defect. A pity actually…..

I couldn't stand listening to this lecture; I stopped it after a minute. She talks way too fast and has such an annoying voice. Speech classes, man.

This video makes me so depressed. Not because of the video but because I live in China and I eat at TON of McDonalds. I need to go across the street more…

PS: I would LOVE to see some more authentic Chinese food in America. Especially roubao.

Korean Chinese food is very different in that it's the only oversea Chinese food that is northern Chinese food by origin.

A peanut-sized brain? Do you know how amazingly efficient my brain must be then?! Wow! Thank you so much! That's definitely one of the most gracious compliments I've ever received!

She's a great speaker. Speaks very fast but very clearly and throws some jokes in there without being awkward like many other speakers. Obviously well practiced and knowledgeable on her topic. Great job Janny Lee!

When Ms Lee makes her analogy with Linux, her illustration is a photo of the facade of Pekin Cafe, an institution in our San Diego California neighborhood of North Park since its 1931 debut. Adjoining the beautifully restored late 1920s North Park Theater, Pekin Cafe has remained a regional favorite for over 80 years.

General Tso's chicken is Hunan. It was created for General Tso, a Hunan general who fought against Mao. Great netflix documentary on this topic.

Also, Chinese food can be, and is, literally anything and everything that's edible, and some things that aren't– like mud. If anything, the Chinese people should be praised for their adaptability when it comes to food.

at the end Jennifer; you wanted to give credit to the Chinese chefs who invented the food . But did you have to bum rush their Names? Nobodies name is chef! its Chuck Peng. stop talking like a young sorority girl.

Ofcourse Chinese had to steal something that is originally from Japan. China never is innovative from itself. And the way she talks about the fact that this happend because the Japanese were locked up because of WW2 is also pretty tasteless. Typically Chinese and their lack of respect.

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