Panda Express ‘Orange Chicken’ changed the American Chinese food game

Panda Express orange chicken, the quintessential American-Chinese invention that helped fuel the country’s craze for Chinese fast food, turns 35 on Friday.

The ubiquitous restaurant, though deceptively simple, marries an array of regional Chinese flavors with American ingredients.

It all started in Hawaii. In 1987, Executive Chef Andy Kao invented orange chicken on a business trip to open the state’s first Panda Express restaurant. Inspired by the island’s citrus fruits and the locals’ love of meat dishes, Kao decided to cover classic American fried chicken with a tangy, sweet and spicy sauce – a flavor combination traditional in the Chinese city of Yang Zhou.

Cao initially used boneless and skinless chicken breasts to make the dish, but soon learned that Americans preferred boneless, skinless meat in bite-sized pieces. To accommodate their milder tastes, he also removed whole chili to get rid of the seasoning.

The dish “takes a hybrid approach that combines cultures, ingredients and flavors while respecting its roots,” Jimmy Wang, head of culinary innovation at Panda Express, said in an email.

Although some view the restaurant as “American”, it was founded by Asian immigrants. Husband and wife team Peggy Cherng, born in Burma, and Andrew Cherng, born in China, opened Panda Express in 1983. Named after President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, Andrew’s first Panda Inn restaurant, the panda serves as a “symbol of friendship.” His father was a chef.

American Chinese cuisine is a cuisine separate from traditional Chinese food, but authentic to the immigrant experience, the Asian American experience, and the Chinese food experience in the United States.

Jimmy Wang, President of PANDA EXPRESS’ Innovative Chef

It now has more than 2,200 locations, making it the largest family-owned Chinese restaurant chain in the country.

The truth is that for many Americans, restaurant fare is their first exposure to Chinese-inspired food.

“Our restaurants were, for some or many in the United States, their first taste and now their regular practice of Chinese food,” Wang said. “When we launched Sichuan Hot Chicken in 2019, Panda was the first to introduce Sichuan pepper seasoning and Mala flavor to a large scale across the country.”

Today, he said, the orange chicken remains the store’s best-seller. Last year, the restaurant chain sold more than 115 million pounds of orange chicken, nearly a third of all sales.

The company even partnered with Beyond Meat last summer to create a vegan version of the orange chicken. Wang said that at a limited launch in Los Angeles, the product sold out in less than two weeks.

However, its success is not without controversy: in 2019, a former employee sued the fast-food chain alleging sex during team-building activity. The case is ongoing. The company, through its representative, declined to comment on the lawsuit.

“We do not condone the type of behavior described in the lawsuit, and this is of grave concern to us,” the restaurant group Panda said in a previous statement. “We are committed to providing a safe environment for all employees and stand behind our core values ​​of treating everyone with respect.”

Among some Asian Americans, the orange chicken has a reputation for being more divisive. A viral BuzzFeed video from 2015 shows young Americans taunting the dish as “egg Chinese food.” Some say the unspeakable shame is associated with eating, let alone enjoying, a flashy dish designed for the American taste.

Chinese food historian Miranda Brown, professor of Chinese studies at the University of Michigan, said the idea of ​​”authenticity” is constantly changing and that the enduring popularity of orange chicken makes it an easy target.

“The problem with orange chicken for a lot of Chinese Americans is that it reinforces the impression that Chinese food is just cheap eats – it’s greasy and not very gourmet,” she said. But this begs the question: Is the food itself the problem? Or do people have a problem with the kinds of stories associated with food? “

For Wang, the focus on “authenticity” diminishes the rich history behind American-Chinese cuisine and the innovation of immigrant chefs to adapt to the tastes of their American customers. While Panda Express’s offerings don’t necessarily fit into the canon of “traditional” Chinese food, he said, they still embody “authentic” Chinese cooking.

“American Chinese cuisine is a cuisine separate from traditional Chinese food, but authentic to the immigrant experience, the Asian American experience and the Chinese food experience in the United States,” he said.

This story originally appeared NBCNews.com.

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