Panda Express is best known as the purveyor of sweet, sticky plates of orange chicken and beef with broccoli in malls across America. But now, the chain is taking aim at a bigger market: It's been reported that company founder Andrew Cherng is thinking about expanding into China.
But will Panda's Americanized menu fly in Beijing? Writer Jenny 8. Lee thinks it might need a little help.
"The Chinese food we eat in America is very alien to Chinese people," she tells Weekend All Things Considered host Linda Wertheimer. Dishes like General Tso's Chicken, a classic of the American Chinese menu, are a mystery to the Chinese diner.
"I actually went to the home town of General Tso, in the Hunan province, where there are 300 members of his family still hanging out," Lee says. "I showed them pictures of General Tso's Chicken, and I said, do you know this dish? And they looked at it and they were like, huh, we've never seen this! And then they would squint and say, is this Chinese food? Cause it doesn't look like Chinese food to them."
Lee adds that American-Chinese food is really its own separate cuisine. But how did it diverge so greatly from its origins?
Cedric Yeh is the curator of a new display at the National Museum of American History. It's called "Sweet & Sour," and it's a look at 150 years of Chinese food in America.
Lee says things really began to change with the invention of chop suey, around the turn of the 20th century. "It took off like wildfire, and it spread across the country," Lee says. "It helped really make the Chinese food experience something exotic and adventuresome for the people in America."
Lee says that while chop suey is generally regarded as an American invention, you can find similar dishes in China. "I asked my parents; they ran a Chinese restaurant themselves," he says. "And what my father said was, well, chop suey can be loosely translated into 'extra bits,' miscellaneous parts, or leftovers. And he said, who doesn't have leftovers?"
But if you're wandering around Chinatown, hungry for an authentic lunch, Jenny 8. Lee has a tip for you: "No American, fully American-Chinese restaurant would serve jellyfish," she says. So if you find somewhere with jellyfish on the menu, you're in for a truly Chinese taste treat. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.