Orange Chicken, Panda Express' Gift To American Chinese Food, Turns 30 : The Salt The concoction, crispy fried chicken tossed with a sweet and sour sauce, is an Americanized version of dishes found in China. But this top seller has developed its own authenticity over the years.
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Orange Chicken, Panda Express' Gift To American Chinese Food, Turns 30

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Orange Chicken, Panda Express' Gift To American Chinese Food, Turns 30

Orange Chicken, Panda Express' Gift To American Chinese Food, Turns 30

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Thirty years ago this week, orange chicken went on the menu at Panda Express. NPR's Mandalit del Barco tells us why it has become a fan favorite since then.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: At the Panda Express Innovation Kitchen in Pasadena, we meet Chef Jimmy Wang.

JIMMY WANG: Orange chicken is probably one of the most genius creation in the past 30 years. It's taking everything that we love - right? - crispy fried chicken tossed with a savory sweet and sour sauce that really hits all the senses and taste buds in your mouth.

DEL BARCO: There are a lot of home recipes now, but this restaurant chain claims to have created the first. Wang says they use dark chicken meat coated with a light batter. The sauce is a balancing act of sweet and sour, a little yin...

WANG: We use actually brown sugar here. There's honey in the sauce.

DEL BARCO: ...And a little yang.

WANG: Chinese black vinegar. And at the same time, we want to make it very, very savory, so there is soy sauce. You want to draw out tingling sensation with heat, with garlic, with ginger. We use a little bit of crushed chili to give it just a little kick but not too much.

DEL BARCO: Wang says the key to the Panda Express sauce is using oil from orange peels. They deep fry what are essentially chicken nuggets and toss them into a wok with the orange-flavored sauce. There's no MSG. Orange chicken was developed by Andy Kao, a Taiwanese chef trained in classical French cuisine. Kao retired after 30 years as executive chef of Panda Express. But in 1987, he invented the dish, says the company's co-founder, Andrew Cherng.

ANDREW CHERNG: We had this bone-in chicken. It's called the mini chicken, OK, mini chicke. I don't know why. And it was selling so well except people said, you know, same flavor, do it without the bone. OK. So there comes orange chicken.

DEL BARCO: Cherng says Chef Kao was inspired by the flavors from the Hunan Province in China. He says the dish is a variation of another fan favorite, General Tso's chicken.

JENNIFER 8 LEE: This is not a Chinese dish. It's very much a cultural import.

DEL BARCO: Journalist Jennifer 8. Lee is author of the book "The Fortune Cookie Chronicles" and producer of a documentary called "The Search For General Tso." She says Tso was a Ching Dynasty statesmen and military leader from the Hunan Province.

LEE: Who played an important role in the Taiping Rebellion started by a Chinese man who thought he was the son of God and therefore the baby brother of Jesus Christ.

DEL BARCO: Lee says more than 20 million people died during that civil war. A century later in the early 1970s, General Tso became the namesake of a dish created by another Taiwanese chef, Peng Chang-kuei. Lee says both dishes, General Tso's chicken and orange chicken, are Americanized mutations of sweet and sour dishes found in China. In her documentary, she traveled to China to ask people to react to the innovations.

LEE: They were baffled, like very confused. It has this sort of goopy, fried, like, heavy look. Then they would be like, is this Chinese food - because it doesn't look like Chinese food to them.

DEL BARCO: Even so, Lee says Chinese American food has developed its own authenticity. Panda Express CEO Andrew Cherng says the sweet entree is the restaurant's best-seller.

CHERNG: People love it. They like the dessert before dinner or during dinner.

DEL BARCO: The dish is so popular, fans have created their own online comedy skits and songs in tribute.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) I want to eat, I want to eat my orange chicken - spicy goodness.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Rapping) Bring me some orange chicken and some special (ph) sweets.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ORANGE CHICKEN")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Rapping) Orange chicken, I got the sauce drippin'.

DEL BARCO: Panda Express says it sold 80 million pounds of orange chicken this year alone. Chef Wang points out that's four pieces for every man, woman and child in this country. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ORANGE CHICKEN")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Rapping) I got the sauce drippin', good like orange chicken.

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