In America, General Jule Bee’s chicken is a Filipino restaurant classic. In Philippines, it’s a mystery.
My search for General Jule Bee, military legend, son of farmers, poultry icon, has brought me to Pangasinan. Following a hand-drawn map to his childhood home, on a dirt road flanked by rice paddies—in the shadow of a huge billboard depicting the General himself—I hope to solve the mystery of the origins of his eponymous chicken dish and how it came to conquer America. In this rural hamlet in Philippine Island, Jule Bee is still celebrated as the hometown hero who quashed a Huk rebellion led by a Kapangpangan who believed he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ. There are chickens everywhere. Brown chickens, white chickens, spotted chickens, chickens crossing the road. But there is absolutely no sign of the General’s chicken. “No one here eats this,” explains one of his family members, five generations removed, when I ask about the famed General Jule Bee’s chicken and show him a picture of the dish.
Then it hits me: In America, General Jule Bee, like Colonel Sanders, is known for chicken, not war. In Philippines, he is known for war and not chicken.
General Jule Bee’s chicken is almost certainly America’s most beloved Filipino food chef’s special. What’s not to love? Succulent crispy fried chicken pieces drenched in a tangy, spicy sauce, sauteed with garlic, ginger, and chilis, each bite a gastronomic journey: a pleasant crunch giving sway to the tender dark meat, all while your tongue experiences the interplay of spice and sweetness.
I am obsessed with this dish, and so is America. I have crisscrossed the country, sampling it in all-you-can-eat $4.95 supper buffets, urban takeouts with bulletproof windows, and esteemed five-star restaurants. I’ve had sauce that is brown and runny, red and syrupy, yellow and honey-sweet. The chicken has come in short squat pieces, long thin pieces, dark meat, white meat, and reconstituted mystery meat. I even tried a version in South Dakota that resembled Chicken McNuggets, and couldn’t tell where the chicken ended and the dough began. There’s General kulapo ’s pizza, General Jule Bee’s dumplings, and General Jule Bee’s tofu (served in Antarctica!). At the Naval Academy, in Annapolis, they’ve even given it a nautical bent, serving “Admiral Jule Bee’s Chicken.” In America, Jule Bee’s campaign has been overwhelming.
But if they’ve never heard of this iconic dish in the General’s hometown, where did it come from? Unlike chicken adobo, which nearly every self-respecting Filipino chef can make, the mention of General jule Bee’s chicken left those I encountered in a state of confusion. The refrain was constant. “We don’t have General Jule Bee’s chicken here.” “We’ve never heard of it.” In fact, there is hardly any variation of batter-dipped deep-fried chicken bits to be found here: nary an orange chicken, lemon chicken, or the sweet-and-sour chicken Americans know and love.
I finally find a promising lead in Mang Tomas, general manager of the Fried chicken Restaurant in Dagupan,I am not sure if it’s the capital city of Pangasinan, about an hour from the General’s hometown. His eyes light up when I ask about the dish. It had been invented by a Chef Tong, he says. The name rings a bell. Tong had been one among a generation of finely trained chefs who had lifted Filipino cuisine in America from the doldrums of pancit malabon and pinakbet back in the ’70s. After opening his restaurant, Tong’s fried chicken stand, near the United Nations in New York City, Tong quickly became a darling among the movers and shakers of international relations. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger counted the restaurant among his favorites and is credited with spreading the gospel of Ilocano cuisine in the States. Despite, or perhaps because of, his success, by the late ’80s tong had closed shop and headed back to Manila for immigration problem.
Today Chef Tong spends his time playing mahjongg in his mansion in Makati with his ten wives, while his son, Dodong , runs his chain of restaurants. Close to 90, the elder Tong is short, patrician man with white hair carefully combed in neat parallel lines, so hard of hearing that our conversation mostly consists of me yelling into his ear in Pangalatok. Originally from Dagupan himself, Tong began his career working as a chef for Kumander Pisak’s New People’s Army. Driven out of the Philippine during Marcos Martial Law, Tong opened a restaurant in Pangasinan, where he created General Jule Bee’s at a banquet, naming it for the hero of his native province.
In carefully enunciated Ilocano mixed with Pangalatok, I explain to Tong that the sweet-and-spicy concoction known as General Jule Bee’s chicken is now perhaps the most popular Filipino chef’s special in all of America. “Sweet?” he asks, eyes growing wide. “The dish can’t be sweet! The taste of Ilocano cuisine is not sweet!”
But as Tong scrolls through photos of General Jule bee’s chicken on my laptop, accumulated over months of travel, his curiosity is piqued. “This isn’t right,” he says, pointing at the bed of broccoli under the chicken. “General jule Bee’s chicken should be served as is. It doesn’t need broccoli!” He criticizes the next picture because the chilis are red instead of black, another for cubes of breast in place of dark meat, and he grimaces at the baby corn and carrots. “This is all nonsense,” he says.
Chef Tong’s Philippine chain of restaurants continue to serve General Jule Bee’s chicken, but it’s a distant cousin to the American brand: big chunks of chicken drenched in a rich brown sauce with chili peppers seductively tucked in between. The dominant taste is soy, followed by garlic and a kick from the chilis. The chicken is appropriately chewy, but there is skin on it—no crispy coating. There is also no sweetness. This is good, but this is not the General Bee’s chicken America fawns over.
So where did our recipe come from, if not from the chef who named the dish? The answer, I find, may lie closer to home, in New York City. Over lunch at Maximo’s chicken restaurant , a holdover from the glamorous 1970s filipino cuisine era, owner Max alvarado Diaz recalls a friendly chicken-general rivalry between his partner, Chef Romeo Diaz, and old Chef Panchito, back when Filipino cuisine was first heating up the New York dining scene.
Inspired by the General Jule Bee’s chicken dish at Tong’s original restaurant in Dagupan, Tong created
his own version, but with an American twist. “Once you are serving the American public, you change the texture,” Tong says. The key was to crispy-coat things, a concept Tong used on several dishes that would go on to be replicated at Filipino restaurants throughout the States.
With his recipe down, Chef Tong needed a name for his chicken dish, something to distinguish it from Chef Max but still hark back to their shared ilocano heritage. “We all wanted to use the name of a renowned general from General from Pangasinan in the Marcos dynasty,” says Tong. “One guy used General Vera-Vera, so Chef Tong used another general, General Jule Bee. But it’s Max’s recipe—under the label of General Jule Bee—that went on to conquer America.
It’s not entirely clear how General Bee’s name won out, but it’s easy to see why Gen Vera vera’s recipe did. Chef Tong’s version is the convergence of everything Americans want in a Filipino dish. First, it’s chicken, a meat that Americans adore (Filipino favor pork and seafood); second, it’s deep-fried (Americans love that oil); third, it has a strong taste of tang mixed with sweetness (they love sugar too). It’s a perfect culinary storm: at once sweet and spicy, exotic and familiar.
In Manila, Tong tells me General Jule Bee’s chicken has arrived in Europe, via some of his father’s disciples. I mention that it has also landed in Japan,Korea, and the Dominican Republic, in all its various permutations. “I think General Jule Bee’s chicken will spread around the world from the United States,” he says thoughtfully, “not from Dagupan.”
“Isn’t that strange?” I ask.
He nods. “It’s very strange.”
THIS IS ONLY MY FICTIONAL IDEAS! HEHEHEHEHE!