Most of China has never heard of General Tso's chicken.
So where exactly did this crispy, sauce-covered favorite — among America's top five most-ordered takeout items, according to data from GrubHub — come from and how did it get so popular? Those are the questions director Ian Cheney set out to answer when he teamed up with Jennifer 8. Lee, author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, to produce the documentary The Search for General Tso.
Chinese food isn't the only Asian cuisine that's undergone a dramatic evolution since it landed in the U.S. Dishes we've come to know as Indian, Japanese and Thai signatures like pad thai and sushi have nearly all been altered, sometimes in flavor and sometimes in how they're eaten.
That evolution is, of course, thanks for Americans' embrace of "foreign" foods in the first place. "The open-mindedness of the American palate dictates what dishes we see here in the States," Matt Le-Khac, the chef behind New York-based Vietnamese eatery An Choi, told Mic.
"I'm happy that pho and banh mi introduced most Americans to the world of Vietnamese food," he said, "but that's just the tip of the iceberg." Those in the U.S. still tend to prefer their own versions. As more and more Americans travel to Asia, Le-Khac has seen a growing interest in lesser-known specialties, but they remain a tough sell. Rob Newton of Brooklyn's Nightingale 9 told Food Republic that he had to take bo bun hue, a more obscure Vietnamese noodle soup, off the menu because of sluggish sales.
Sure enough, here are seven Asian dishes that are beloved in America but would be hard to recognize in their home countries.
General Tso's Chicken
When the team behind The Search for General Tso showed pictures of this quintessential takeout dish around China, no one recognized it. That's because the General Tso's chicken we know is nothing like the original, which traces its roots back to Taiwan in the 1950s, when a Hunanese chef named Peng Chang-kuei came up with a fancy chicken platter and named it after his hometown hero, General Zuo Zongtang.
That version is still served at Peng's restaurant in Taipei, but it's neither sweet nor deep-fried and doesn't have broccoli, according to Lee. The sticky, sugary, crunchy version that Americans are familiar with was invented in the 1970s by chef T.T. Wang of New York City's Shun Lee Palace. It became such a hit that thousands of Chinese restaurants across the country quickly adopted General Tso's chicken, turning it into the ubiquitous classic it is today.
Like General Tso's chicken, this popular noodle dish varies widely in the U.S. and in Thailand. Here, it's been transformed into plates of gloppy noodles sweetened with white sugar, ketchup and sometimes even peanut butter. Back in Thailand, the street food favorite takes on different flavors depending on the vendor, Andy Ricker, the James Beard award-winning chef behind the Pok Pok restaurants, told Mic.
"There are as many different recipes for phat Thai in Thailand as there are for, say, macaroni and cheese in the USA, and it is not uncommon to find food in Thailand that has been engineered to suit the tastes of visiting tourists," said Ricker.
But the older recipes (sut boraan), including the one Ricker serves at Pok Pok Phat Thai in Brooklyn, New York, and Los Angeles, call for a more nuanced approach. "We cook with pork fat, we use tamarind juice for the souring agent, palm sugar for the sweetener and fish sauce for the umami hit," he said.
There's plenty of fine sushi to be had stateside, but it's the monster rolls sold at half-off joints that dominate America's Japanese food scene. In Japan, sushi is a serious craft that requires years of training — just think of Daisuke Nakazawa, the disciple in Jiro Dreams of Sushi who practiced making egg custard more than 200 times.
Many American restaurants, on the other hand, have taken complete creative license with the specialty by adding weird fillings (hello, cream cheese), rolling them inside out and even shaping sushi into hearts. And contrary to the well-worn notion that fish is the star, the rice is actually the most important ingredient, according to Tokyo sushi master Noamichi Yasuda.
The quality of the herb plate that arrives with your pho is just as important as the noodle soup itself. At Le-Khac's favorite stand in Saigon, the platter consists of the familiar bean sprouts, hot long peppers, Thai basil and lime, in addition to two ingredients we don't often get in the U.S.: fried crullers and culantro. That's not a typo — in Vietnam, culantro (sawtooth herb) is the featured garnish.
"When Vietnamese first came to the States, they were looking for culantro but couldn't find it, so they threw in cilantro instead — sounds close enough, right?" said Le-Khac. "But the two herbs are built differently. Culantro is heartier and holds better in the piping hot pho broth compared to its wiltier substitute." Le-Khac said he serves the proper herb at An Choi.
And while Americans are used to dousing their pho with hoisin sauce and Sriracha, the condiments actually overpower the subtle spices used in the broth. "A good bite of food should activate all your taste senses," he said.
Tom Yum Soup
Spicy isn't supposed to be the most prominent flavor of this beloved Thai soup, which can feature a clear broth or a creamy one. "I would say 95% of tom yum soup found here in the U.S. does not represent how tom yum soup in Thailand tastes," said Supanee Kitmahawong, the owner of Kiin Thai Eatery. "The authentic version is so complex that it should taste spicy, sour and salty at the same time and finish up with a little sweetness on the palate."
A well-crafted bowl calls for not just chilies, but also for tamarind, fresh lemongrass, ginger, kaffir lime leaf and dried shrimps.
Chicken Tikka Masala
It's probably the most iconic Indian dish in America, but chicken tikka masala was actually invented in the U.K. According to food lore, the dish came to be when a British diner complained that his chicken tikka (marinated and grilled chicken) was too dry, leading the chef to concoct a sauce out of tomatoes, spices and yogurt, or what we know as "masala."
Not surprisingly, you'll be hard-pressed to find the buffet standby in India. There will more likely be variations of murgh makhani (butter chicken), a Delhi-born chicken dish that also starts with a tomato base, but uses many more spices and Indian Amul-brand butter.
Dan Dan Noodles
In its most classic form — as a beloved dish found everywhere on the streets of Sichuan, China — dan dan noodles boast a complex build of flavors: a subtle nuttiness from sesame, mouth-numbing heat from peppercorns and slight sweetness from soy. But at some point during the noodles' stateside evolution, the heat was taken out and the sesame was replaced by an all-American condiment: peanut butter.