TAIPEI (Taiwan News) -- Writers from Taiwan News paid a visit yesterday to the original Peng's Garden Hunan Restaurant (彭園湘菜館) to learn more about the history of the famed eatery, a place which should be on the itinerary of every visitor to Taipei, and to sample its world-famous dish -- General Tso's Chicken (左宗棠雞).
Though many Westerners may not have heard of Peng's Garden, its trademark dish -- General Tso's Chicken -- is on the menu of virtually every Chinese restaurant in North America and much of the Western world. The dish recently gained renewed attention due to a documentary released in 2014 titled "The Search for General Tso" directed by Ian Cheney and the sad passing of the dish's legendary inventor Chef Peng Chang-kuei (彭長貴) in late 2016.
In an interview with Taiwan News, the general manager and top apprentice of Peng, Chef Chen Cheng-chuan (陳正川), elaborated on the rich history of the restaurant chain and revealed some of the secrets behind its signature dishes.
Biography of Chef Peng
A native of Changsha, Hunan Province, Peng began training in the culinary arts in Hengyang at the age of 13. After four years of cooking experience under his belt, he was accepted as an apprenctice of the famous Hunan chef Cao Jing-chen (曹藎臣), who was the family chef of Tan Yan-kai (譚延闓), the prime minister of the Nationalist government from 1926 to 1928.
While working as a cook for the Tan family, Peng was exposed to wealth of information on a vast array of highly complex dishes that were unique to the Tan household, while at the same time was given the opportunity to experiment with new iterations. He came away from the experience with both a full repertoire of Tan family dishes as well as his own creations.
After WWII, he was put in charge of running Nationalist government banquets, and in 1949 he fled to Taiwan after the Kuomintang's forces were defeated by the communists in the Chinese Civil War.
Chef Peng on the right preparing dish. (AP photo)
History of Peng's Garden
In 1952, Peng opened his first restaurant in Taipei's Ximending area, where he started to make a name for himself. In the 1972, he opened a restaurant in New York City, where he began to gain the attention of officials from the nearby United Nations headquarters, including U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who was very impressed with his cooking.
In 1983, he returned to Taipei and opened the longest-serving Peng's Garden restaurant on Linsen North Road, which is still in business to this day. He finally was able to come full circle when he was able to open a branch of Peng's Garden in his hometown of Changsha in Hunan in 1991, where he enjoyed many years of success. Today, there are three branches of the restaurant in Taiwan, two in Taipei and one in New Taipei City.
Entrance to original Linsen North Road branch of Peng's Garden Hunan Restaurant.
Origin of General Tso's Chicken
During a four-day visit by U.S. Seventh Fleet commander Admiral Arthur W. Radford in 1952, Peng was tasked with providing the naval commander with the best feasts he could conjure. After three days, he had served the guests most of his repertoire of dishes, so to try and mix things up a bit, he decided to chop some chicken into big chunks, fry it to a golden hue and then added a different combination of sauce and seasoning to create a new dish.
The admiral was so impressed with the dish that he asked Peng what it was called, thinking quickly on his feet and recognizing that Radford was the naval equivalent of a general, he said "General Tso's Chicken," in honor of the famous Qing Dynasty general from his home province of Hunan.
Chef Tsai Chung-hsien (蔡宗憲) adding sauce to General Tso's Chicken as he cooks it in wok.
Regional Variants of General Tso's Chicken
According to Chef Chen, the main difference between Peng's original recipe for General Tso's Chicken and the American iteration is that the former includes dry chili peppers and a pinch of sugar to add a little zest with only a tiny hint of sweetness, while the latter uses ketchup and a much larger proportion of sugar to give it a more reddish hue and sweeter taste.
Chen said traditional Hunan cuisine makes greater use of oil, salt, spices and has a heavier flavor than modern Taiwanese style cooking, which is shifting away from the aggressive use of oil and salt. When they opened their branch of Peng's Garden in Hunan, they had to go by the expression "when in Rome do as the Romans do" and increase the oil and salt content somewhat, but not to the full extent as their local counterparts to maintain their Taiwanese identity. The Hunan restaurant became so popular, that at one point guests had to make reservations three to five days in advance to get a table.
Other Signature Dishes
Beyond General Tso's Chicken, Peng's Garden has a number of other trademark dishes.
Next to it's legendary chicken dish, Fu Kuei Shuang Fang (富貴雙方), thin slices of honey-glazed ham and crunchy tofu served on a white bun, is one of the most popular items on the menu.
Fu Kuei Shuang Fang (富貴雙方)
Fu Kuei Shuang Fang (富貴雙方) served on a bun.
During his New York phase, Peng decided to fuse East and West with another unique dish -- Minced Shrimp with Lettuce (生菜蝦鬆) -- which combines fresh, uncooked lettuce with stir-fried shrimp.
Another top choice is Peng Family Tofu (彭家豆腐), which is served in a clay pot and makes use of Douchi (豆豉), fermented black soybeans, to give it a Chinese flair.
Peng Family Tofu 彭家豆腐
A dish that Chen says is very popular with Japanese tourists is Minced Pork with Honeydew Melon 香瓜元盅, as the melon is extremely expensive in Japan, and thus is considered a special treat. The combination of finely minced meat over a sweet soup served in a Honeydew Melon bowl is a surprising mix of salty and sweet flavors.
Minced Pork with Honeydew Melon 香瓜元盅
Video of a tough challenge to unwrap Empress braised beef brisket.
When asked about some of the more memorable guests the restaurant has served over the years, Chen said that Singapore's former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew would be served with dishes made by Chef Peng and his team at the Taipei Guesthouse on his annual trips to Taiwan to meet with President Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國). Chen also remembers serving the former president and his wife Chiang Fang-liang (蔣方良) on their anniversary every year on March 15. He also recalls the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have them prepare the banquet for an Arab prince.
The next generation
As tastes among the younger generation have started to change, the company has opened a new restaurant called Xiang Ba Lao (湘8老), which offers dishes that are trendy among young Taiwanese such as eggplant and stinky tofu.
But when it comes to tweaking the formula that has worked for so many decades at Peng's Garden, Chen says that they will not be altering their menu dramatically anytime soon because their guests complain if they cannot order their favorite old standbys. Though he adds that they continue to innovate and come up a few new creations from time to time without disrupting their main selection of offerings.
Chef Chen Cheng-chuan (left) with the author holding up a freshly plate of General Tso's Chicken.
The original Peng's Garden can be found at 380 North Linsen Road on the second floor. For more information, please visit their website.