Thursday, October 1, 2009
Does that picture on the left look good? Do you see that and want to call for Chinese take-out? Are you craving a big mound of chicken smothered with anonymous brown sauce? I know, I've been there too. I've wandered into a cheap Chinese place--in my part of Brooklyn you can't avoid wandering into cheap Chinese places--and whatever chemicals I had coursing through my veins at the time told me that I needed the greasiest, least nutritious thing on the menu. And, almost unwillingly, I find myself ordering the General's Tso's Chicken.
When I say "least nutritious," I'm not kidding. This survey of Chinese food nutrition says that an average order of General Tso's chicken has 1,300 calories and a whopping 3,200 milligrams of sodium, which is more sodium than anything listed except the Chicken with Black Bean Sauce, which will kill you instantly. There are no vegetables in an order of General Tso's, except for a few lonely broccoli stalks, and the sauce is loaded with sugar. (This recipe has 3 tablespoons of sugar for a pound of chicken, but I bet some restaurants put in more.) According to this chart, there are nearly 17 grams of fat in a single cup of Tso's. This is not food that a Chinese peasant might eat before a hard day in the fields. This is not food you eat when you want to indulge yourself with a nice meal from a restaurant, or take a date out on the town. This is food you eat when you are loaded, all the decent eateries have closed, and you just need to shovel food--any food--into your mistreated body before passing out fully clothed in your squalid dorm room or apartment.
Maybe there is some General Tso's somewhere that is relatively healthy and doesn't make you feel like you've swallowed a sauce-covered football afterwards. Maybe I'm visiting the wrong kinds of Chinese restaurants and there are fancy Chinese restaurants that offers fancy General Tso's--but then again, I don't think a fancy Chinese place would serve General Tso's--then again, I'm not sure such a thing as a "fancy" Chinese restaurant exists.
Besides the question of whether an upscale Chinese place would serve it, there are two mysteries surrounding General Tso's chicken. The first is the identity of "Tso." Did he inspire fear in his enemies, or just the chickens? How did he find the time to command armies and invent the world's least nutritious sauce?* Did he die in battle or, as I suspect, of clogged arteries?
The second mystery is that Zuo Zongtang's chicken is always one of the more expensive items on the menu. This could be because the sauce is especially expensive to make, but anyone who's ever tasted it knows that's not true. The only reasonable explanation is that there is such a high demand for General Tso's people are willing to pay more for it than other dishes. We're talking about a food that is unequivocally bad for you in the long term, and in the short term, it makes you feel bloated and gross after eating it. General Tso's empire is built on people who are so concerned with immediate gratification (all that sugar and sodium does make it taste pretty good) that they toss out all other concerns.
General Tso's chicken is the siren song of the Chinese take-out menu. It lures us towards its glistening brown rocks of meat with the promise that the first few bites will be delicious, then the next few bites are tolerable, and by the end of it you are simply disgusted with yourself and will throw out the leftovers the next day. When we order it, we know how bad we're going to feel afterwards, and even if we don't have the nutrition facts in front of us, we know that this sauce is destroying our bodies. When we order General Tso's, we're saying, "fuck the future, I'm living for the brown-sauce-covered present." I don't have any data to back this up, but I'll bet that most General Tso's chicken is consumed by college students and other assorted partiers--who in addition to living for the present, are too drunk to know any better.