There’s no General Tso’s Chicken in China

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This is one of Mike Bellamy’s favorite sayings. And there really isn’t any General Tso’s Chicken in China. And conversely, KFC in the USA thankfully, wisely does NOT serve that weird breaded, fried ground shrimp burger thing with the chunks of pepper and kernels of corn with the sweet mayonnaise…ick. And this is an ick from the guy who really, truly loves Chongqing style Pig’s Brain Soup.

This points to the distorted lenses through which different cultures view each other. General Tso’s Chicken is as far from a Hunan dish* as you can get. Yet it is probably the most famous “Chinese” dish in America. Some years ago I was dining at the local “Chinese” restaurant (normally I avoid such places, but my Father enjoys the lunch buffet). This place is owned by a great family from Taiwan, my much beloved second home, and I know they cook the good authentic stuff for themselves, but like every “Chinese” restaurant in small town America, they play to (their perception of) local tastes. Which, sadly, means sweet sauces, deep fried everything, overcooked vegetables**, copious amounts of cornstarch to fatten you up, Uncle Ben’s grade “rice”, “hot” dishes that aren’t, etc. Not the worst stuff in the world, but when you know what the real thing tastes like, it’s always disappointing.

As I was making my way around the buffet the restaurant was suddenly overrun with school aged children, maybe 5th grade. I asked one of the chaperons what was going on. Turned out to be a field trip from one of the local public schools; they were studying China that week and this was part of their education. I reflexively said, “这菜不是中国菜,是美国菜”; she was quite taken aback to hear me speaking Chinese, but even more so when I translated, “this isn’t Chinese food, this is American food”.

These cases of cultural myopia are fun when discussing food, but they can be dangerous when you start throwing money around. I am astounded by some of the assumptions people have about China, ranging from charming naivete to stunning ignorance. I’ll be the first one to admit China is getting easier to work with all the time, but that’s only in comparison to how difficult it was in the past. It is still a very foreign place.

PassageMaker was founded to help foreign companies be successful in their dealings with China. I tell all my clients, if you can satisfy your customers by making the product in your home market, please do. If you don’t have to source in China, don’t. Doing business in China is difficult and slow and never as inexpensive as it is advertised. But the reality is, in many cases, China sourcing is required to succeed in the market. It is still the place where the “world price” gets set.

Our core services – Sourcing Feasibility Studies, Vendor Coordination and Assembly-Inspection-Packaging – are all designed to help our clients access the advantages of China without exposing their intellectual property or otherwise getting ripped off. Mike and I have been doing this a while and we’ve made the mistakes and learned the lessons for you. If your project requires China sourcing, leverage our experience to make it a successful venture.


* Hunan cuisine is one of my favorites, and is hot and spicy without the horrendous, toxic heat of Sichuan cuisine. This is one the best Hunan dishes, chili shrimp skewers, and you eat the shells, much like soft-shelled crab. We typically go through 3-4 plates of these at a sitting. Perfect with a cold beer.

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**Vegetable dishes are what I miss most in China. I’ve become reasonably proficient in recreating my favorites at home. Here’s my recipe for Spinach with Garlic and Sesame Seed (it’s my blog and who said we had to talk business all the time?):

8-10 oz spinach leaves (1 big bunch washed and trimmed or 1 bag of baby spinach leaves in the salad section works perfectly)

6-8 cloves of garlic, smashed and chopped coarsely

3 tbsps peanut oil

2 tbsps toasted sesame seeds (toast yourself by dry frying in the wok or buy them pre-toasted at any Asian grocery store)

1/4 tsp kosher salt

Heat the oil in a wok, add salt and garlic when hot, stir fry quickly and don’t burn the garlic. Add spinach (best to rinse and dry as much as possible in a salad spinner) and stir fry until leaves are wilted. Add sesame seeds, toss to mix and serve immediately.

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