Siege of Xixia

IMAGE: Mongol hordes attack the walled city of Xiaxia, via.


IMAGE: The Imperial Portrait of Emperor Xianfeng, via.

Sweet and Sour Chicken

IMAGE: A hot meal, via.

The tale of General Tso’s Chicken, as described in my last post, may strike many of you as quite convoluted enough already. Until recently, however, I had (quite wrongly, as it turns out) associated an entirely different story with the dish. At the risk of further muddying the waters, here it is:

More than a thousand years ago, the story goes, a king was struggling to protect his walled city from capture. He had maybe a dozen troops left, all of them thoroughly demoralized, and the invading army had just broken through the outer gates. The city was doomed.

But then, in a flash of insight, the king made a decision. He would sit down at a table, unprotected in a nearby courtyard. He would calmly eat supper there, unperturbed, waiting for his enemies to arrive.

And they arrive. They come screaming round the corner – only to see the king there, eating. But he doesn’t stand, flinch, or say a word. He doesn’t even acknowledge their presence. The sheer surreality of the scene convinces the invaders that it must be a trap – that archers must be hiding in the turrets above, waiting for a sign to fire, and that heavily armed soldiers must be standing behind the doorways, broadswords in hand. A wave of panic passes over the army – and the invaders retreat from the city.

The king, alone with his plate of warm food, has saved the city.

This story, which adds eating dinner to the list of military strategies any great commander should have up their sleeve, has, I now realise, nothing to do with General Tso’s Chicken.

Is it an origin myth that simply became detached from a different dish? If so, what was this simultaneously straightforward and awe-inspiring meal?

And if not, it is too good a tale to leave without a recipe: perhaps there is an ambitious chef somewhere who can create a deceptively simple, yet ultimately intimidating dinner that is worthy of this ready-made backstory?

NOTE: It’s worth pointing out that the story quoted above is from an essay written by Geoff Manaugh of Edible Geography‘s sister site, BLDGBLOG, for Storefront for Art and Architecture’s 2008 White House Redux competition and exhibition. The essay has recently been republished in the gallery’s impressive, two-volume Storefront Newsprints 1982–2009.