Panda Express’ orange chicken, the quintessential American Chinese invention that helped bolster a nationwide craze for Chinese takeout, turns 35 on Friday.
The ubiquitous restaurant offering, while deceptively simple, marries a host of Chinese regional 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 citrus on the island and the locals’ love for meat dishes, Kao decided to coat an American classic, fried chicken, with a tangy, sweet and spicy sauce — a traditional flavor combination in the Chinese city of Yang Zhou.
Kao initially used bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts to make the dish but soon learned that Americans preferred boneless, skinless meat in bite-size pieces. To accommodate their milder palates, he also removed whole dried chilis to dial down the spice.
The dish “takes a hybrid approach of bridging cultures, ingredients and flavors while respecting its roots,” Jimmy Wang, Panda Express’ head chef of culinary innovation, said in an email.
Although some perceive the restaurant as “Americanized,” 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. Andrew’s first sit-down restaurant, Panda Inn, was named for President Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to China, the panda serving as “a symbol of friendship.” His father was the chef.
American Chinese cuisine is a separate cuisine from traditional Chinese food, but it is authentic to the immigrant experience, Asian American experience and the Chinese food experience in the U.S.
— Jimmy wang, Panda Express’ head chef of culinary innovation
It now has more than 2,200 locations, making it the largest family-owned Chinese restaurant chain in the country.
And the reality is that for many Americans, the restaurant’s fare is their first exposure to Chinese-inspired food.
“Our restaurants, for some or many in the U.S., were a first taste and are now their regular habit of Chinese food,” Wang said. “When we launched Sichuan hot chicken in 2019, Panda was the first to introduce the Sichuan peppercorn spice and the mala flavor profile at scale across the nation.”
Today, he said, orange chicken remains the store’s best-seller. Last year, the restaurant chain sold more than 115 million pounds of orange chicken, roughly a third of all sales.
The company even partnered with Beyond Meat last summer to create a vegan version of orange chicken. In a limited launch in Los Angeles, Wang said, the product sold out in less than two weeks.
Its success, however, isn’t free of controversy: In 2019, a former employee sued the fast-food chain alleging sexual battery during a team-building activity. The case is ongoing. The company declined through a representative to comment on the lawsuit.
“We do not condone the kind of behavior described in the lawsuit, and it is deeply concerning to us,” the Panda Restaurant Group previously said in a statement. “We are committed to providing a safe environment for all associates and stand behind our core values to treat each person with respect.”
Among some Asian Americans, orange chicken has a more divisive reputation. A viral BuzzFeed video from 2015 shows young Chinese Americans deriding the dish as “white people’s Chinese food.” Some say an unspeakable shame is associated with eating, let alone enjoying, a dish so garishly designed for the American palate.
A historian of Chinese food, Miranda Brown, a professor of Chinese studies at the University of Michigan, said that the idea of “authenticity” is changing constantly 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 it begs the question: Is the food itself the problem? Or is it that people have a problem with the kinds of stories that are attached to the food?”
For Wang, the fixation on “authenticity” diminishes the rich history behind Chinese American cuisine and the innovation of immigrant chefs to adapt to the tastes of their American diners. While Panda Express’ 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 separate cuisine from traditional Chinese food, but it is authentic to the immigrant experience, Asian American experience and the Chinese food experience in the U.S.” he said.