General Tso’s chicken is a sweet, slightly spicy, deep-fried chicken dish that is popularly served in American Chinese restaurants. The dish is most commonly regarded as a Hunanese dish, although it was unknown in China and other lands home to the Chinese diaspora before it was introduced by chefs returning from the United States.
The dish is named after General Tso Tsung-tang, or Zuo Zongtang, a Qing dynasty general and statesman, although there is no recorded connection to him. The real roots of the dish lie in the post-1949 exodus of chefs to the United States.
The food has been associated with the name of Zuo Zongtang (左宗棠, 1812–1885), a Qing Dynasty general from Hunan. Zuo himself could not have eaten the dish as it is today, and the dish is found neither inChangsha, the capital of Hunan, nor in Xiangyin, the home of General Tso. Moreover, descendants of General Tso still living in Xiangyin, when interviewed, say that they have never heard of such a dish.
There are several stories concerning the origin of the dish. Eileen Yin-Fei Lo states in her book The Chinese Kitchen that the dish originates from a simple Hunan chicken dish, and that the reference to “Zongtang” was not a reference to Zuo Zongtang’s given name, but rather a reference to the homonym “zongtang“, meaning “ancestral meeting hall.” Consistent with this interpretation, the dish name is sometimes (but considerably less commonly) found in Chinese as “Zuo ancestral hall chicken”. (Chung tong gai is a transliteration of “ancestral meeting hall chicken” from Cantonese; Zuǒ Zōngtáng jī is the standard name of General Tso’s chicken as transliterated from Mandarin.)
The dish or its variants are known by a number of names, including Governor Tso’s chicken, General Gau’s chicken, General Tao’s chicken, General Tsao’s chicken, General Tong’s chicken, General Tang’s chicken, General Cho’s chicken, General Chau’s chicken, General Joe’s Chicken, T.S.O. Chicken, General Ching’s chicken, House Chicken, or simply General’s Chicken. The linguist Victor Mair, commenting on the various names for the dish and problem of getting them straight, says that he has not seen the spelling “General Zuo’s Chicken,” that is, using the now standard pinyin romanization, but that he expects to see it soon. 
As documented by Fuchsia Dunlop in the New York Times, one claim is that the recipe was invented by Taiwan-based Hunan cuisine chef Peng Chang-kuei (a.k.a. Peng Jia) (Chinese: 彭長貴; pinyin: Péng Chánggùi), who had been an apprentice of Cao Jingchen’s, a famous early 20th-century Chinese chef. Peng was the Nationalist government banquets’ chef and fled with Chiang Kai-shek‘s forces to Taiwan during the Chinese Civil War. There, he continued his career as official chef until 1973, when he moved to New York to open a restaurant. That was where Peng Jia started inventing new dishes and modifying traditional ones; one new dish, General Tso’s chicken, was originally prepared without sugar, and subsequently altered to suit the tastes of “non-Hunanese people”. The popularity of the dish has now led to it being “adopted” by local Hunanese chefs and food writers, perhaps as an acknowledgment of the dish’s unique status, upon which the international reputation of Hunanese cuisine was largely based. Ironically, when Peng Jia opened a restaurant in Hunan in the 1990s introducing General Tso’s chicken, the restaurant closed without success and the locals found the dish too sweet.
Peng’s Restaurant on East 44th Street in New York City claims that it was the first restaurant in the city to serve General Tso’s chicken. Since the dish (and cuisine) was new, Chef Peng Jia made it the house specialty in spite of the dish’s commonplace ingredients. A review of Peng’s in 1977 mentions that their “General Tso’s chicken was a stir-fried masterpiece, sizzling hot both in flavor and temperature”.
New York’s Shun Lee Palaces, East (155 E. 55th St.) and West (43 W. 65th St.) also says that it was the first restaurant to serve General Tso’s chicken and that it was invented by a Chinese immigrant chef named T. T. Wang in 1972. Michael Tong, owner of New York’s Shun Lee Palaces, says, “We opened the first Hunanese restaurant in the whole country, and the four dishes we offered you will see on the menu of practically every Hunanese restaurant in America today. They all copied from us.”