My mouth started watering just a couple of minutes into “The Search for General Tso,” a fascinating, funny and informative documentary that opens with a food stylist preparing a plate of glisteningly sauced fried chicken and bright green broccoli for a photo shoot.
But this is not a movie about food — or, rather, it is not just a movie about food — despite a title that evokes a staple of Chinese restaurants everywhere. Well, maybe not quite everywhere.
As the movie crew travels to China searching for the culinary origins of the iconic dish and its historical namesake (sometimes known as Tsao, Chau, Gau and by many other spellings), we learn that the famous chicken dish is virtually unheard of in China.
That, of course, comes as no surprise. Most sophisticates know that American Chinese food is a cuisine unto itself. How it changed and evolved after the first wave of Chinese immigrants brought it to California around 1850 is just one of the film’s several subjects, along with such broader notions as cultural assimilation and appropriation. Produced by Jennifer 8. Lee (a former Washington Post intern and author of the similarly themed book “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles”), the film brings a lively treatment to a subject that many of us take for granted.
Some of the film’s featured interview subjects certainly don’t take it for granted. These Chinese food obsessives include Harvey Spiller, a collector of Chinese restaurant memorabilia who reportedly owns menus, dating back to 1916, from some 10,000 Chinese eateries. I would gladly watch an entire movie focused on him.
Not that “The Search for General Tso” left me hungry. At just over an hour, it’s a surprisingly satisfying and tasty dish for anyone looking for something a bit less bland than the typical history documentary.
★ ★ ★
Unrated. At the West End Cinema. Contains nothing offensive. 71 minutes.