How Panda Express Changed American Chinese Food Forever

It is easy to overlook Panda Express when you are on the lookout for what you might consider a "real" Chinese meal. But that oversight may be a little unfair, because, as NextShark points out, the franchise is constantly being evaluated by criteria that is hardly, if ever, applied to any other fast food chain: "authenticity." But Panda Express' Executive Director of Culinary Innovation Jimmy Wang has been clear about just what kind of cuisine the company serves. "We said this is [Panda Express is] American Chinese cuisine. We didn't say this is traditional Chinese cuisine" (via NextShark).

When diners look around for the most "authentic" Chinese in town, they may have forgotten — or are completely in the dark — as to how Chinese cuisine developed on American shores. When Chinese immigrants first reached the United States, they faced intense discrimination. Because of this mistreatment, they were only able to take on what was considered "women's work" — running laundromats and restaurants. It was then only a matter of time before cheap Chinese food became a part of American restaurant culture (per the Columbia Political Review). In adjusting to American tastes, these inventive chefs began applying Chinese cooking techniques to western ingredients, creating American Chinese food dishes like crab Rangoon, General Tso's chicken, and chop suey. 

Panda Express gets two thumbs up from a surprising demographic

Surprisingly, the main demographic appreciating Panda Express' take on Chinese food is one it probably did not think it could capture. In 2015, BuzzFeed put Panda Express to what it probably thought was the ultimate test: The site served up egg rolls, chow mein, fried rice, and orange chicken to young Chinese Americans as well as older members of the community. The results were rather surprising. While the younger diners were dismissive of just about all of it, their elder counterparts, who spoke no English, were happy to accept Panda Express for what it was. "[It] tastes very good," said one woman. Another elderly tester added, "Just American-style Chinese food. You can't expect it to be the same as our traditional Chinese food."

And, as one commenter put it: "I'm Chinese, and I've been eating traditional Chinese food all my life. I don't think people should be put down for what they like to eat! Panda Express is totally ok, and it's a great way to introduce Chinese food to people who have never had it." Jimmy Yang shared similar thoughts with Today: "Our restaurants, for some or many in the U.S., were a first taste and are now their regular habit of Chinese food." By that account, Panda Express has truly defined what American Chinese food is for a number of people.