General Tso's Chicken at New Star, Elmwood Park

How food traditions and perceptions of authenticity begin

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By David Hammond

In the unlikely event you've never eaten General Tso's Chicken, it's a platter of the breaded and deep-fried fowl, served in a pool of sweet brown gravy, usually with broccoli.

For the American palate, General Tso's Chicken (GTC) is a winning combination, in part because chicken is so popular, recently surpassing beef as the most consumed meat in the United States, and we Americans also like fried food as well as gravy and sweet flavors, and the gravy on fried chicken in a plate of GTC glistens with sugariness.

GTC is sometimes deemed "inauthentic" because, like chop suey and egg food yung, it was not born in China. GTC was invented in the United States, New York specifically, sometime in the 70s. All of which makes some recent charges of cultural appropriation seem a sterling example of uninformed outrage. As reported in the Oberlin Review:

"Prudence Hiu-Ying, a College sophomore…cited an instance when Stevenson [the dining hall] was serving General Tso's chicken, but…instead of deep-fried chicken with ginger-garlic soy sauce, the chicken was steamed with a substitute sauce, which Hiu-Ying described as "so weird that I didn't even try." 

Dear Prudence probably thinks the GTC she enjoyed as a child is the one and true authentic version of the dish.

GTC is a traditional Chinese-American food, and it's fair to say that the version served at New Star in Elmwood park is "authentic" to the extent that it reflects that recent tradition.

Alas, for me, GTC is not very good: it's too fried, too gravy-gloppy, too sweet, too one-dimensional. This is not at all a criticism of New Star, which does a credible rendition of the dish. And the price is right; at lunchtime, for under $10 (tax included), you get soup, eggroll containing requisite peanut butter, main course with rice, tea and de rigueur almond and fortune cookies, a very good deal. We like New Star, but we don't ever need to order GTC again. There are many better things to eat there (we like the chicken chow mein).

At New Star, you're also served a bowl of fried wonton strips…with, unexpectedly, a kind of fried donut on top. Looking around the restaurant at lunchtime, I noticed a group of kids eagerly eating their fried donuts, which I've never before seen served in a Chinese restaurant, either in the US or in China. When these kids grow up and go out to eat, they may perhaps deem it "inauthentic" if a Chinese restaurant doesn't serve the donuts they so enjoyed, as kids, at New Star. That's how food traditions and perceptions of authenticity begin.

 

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