Taking the Orange Chicken Challenge (ASIAN 258)
Updated: May 4, 2020
The name of this blog might as well be the title of the class. If there's a time to be upfront, that would be now. The end of the term draws close, and we must square the circle.
So what is the orange chicken challenge? You might be imagining two guys sitting at a table eating as much of the stuff as they can keep down in an hour. Or battling chefs, vying to make the most appetizing plate for TV.
If that were the challenge, I'd flunk. I am too much of a snob to eat orange chicken, and bad at preparing it. My daughter used to stick her binky back into her mouth after one bite.
The orange chicken challenge is as much an emotional exercise as a culinary or academic one. It requires we abandon familiar prejudices and assumptions, finding new ways of evaluating food and loosening our attachment to the hazy concept that has haunted us all term. By which, I mean authenticity.
The challenge was inspired by something on YouTube. By now, you are probably aware that I spend a fair amount of time on line. As it turns out, I was trying to come up with something inspiring to say about Asian American cuisine when I glimpsed, “Chinese People Try Panda Express for the First Time.” A slogan was born.
The premise of the video captivated me: Asian American college students offering their grandparents a taste of Panda. In case you are wondering, orange chicken makes an appearance – at the end. Predictably, some of the older folks thought the food was all wrong. Others were more equivocal. Watch the video.
The kids, however, were of a different opinion. Panda is just gross, by which they mean American.
Orange chicken does not enjoy much esteem these days. It may be Panda’s most popular offering, but discerning eaters take a dim view of it – and let’s face it, American Chinese food more generally.
Munchies ran an episode only a few years ago that summed up these views. The star was Han Jiang, the founder of Han Dynasty, a wildly-popular franchise in Philly. He’s your typically edgy cook. I won't spoil the fun, though. To hear what he can do with F bombs, click on the link.
I'll say this, however. Mr. Han may not have the most elegant way of expressing himself, but he cuts straight to the chase. Chinese food in America, in his view, is an insult, a hoax. It came from the old days, when unskilled Chinese laborers had to find a way to make money. So, and I paraphrase, they cooked a bunch of crap and passed it off on white people.
You’ve no doubt heard a version of this story. It’s so old it predates me.
When I was a child, my mother would steer clear of some restaurants in San Francisco. She would shake her head at those establishments with tablecloths serving orange chicken. Those are for white people, she would say. They need fancy decorations, not flavor.
College in the Bay Area introduced me to more “sophisticated” variations on the theme. Need to know why Chinese food in America is such a degenerate copy, a "distortion" of Chinese cuisine? Just look at the American consumer. He can’t handle "real" Chinese. He needs his sweets, his grease, his MSG-laced chicken. There ain’t much Chinese in American Chinese. It’s American -- in the worst possible sense of the word.
But is American Chinese really all that different from the other foods we have explored this term?
On the face of things, it should be. After all, we are in the United States, and we eat it. Besides, 2019 was the year of Chinese Food Controversies. (Yes, that was so 2019.)
The season kicked off with the opening of Lucky Lee’s on the Upper East Side, which advertised its selection of “clean Chinese.” Yelp soon had to shut down the comments section on the restaurant’s website. Reviewers attacked the tasteless cooking, the racially insensitive marketing, and the lack of Chinese people in the kitchen. The Lee in Lucky Lee referred to the first name of one of the owners, a Mr. Lee Haspel. The restaurant has since closed its doors.
Undoubtedly, the controversy speaks -- or spoke -- to the times. Asian Americans have become assertive about who should represent them -- and their culinary traditions. For some, the uproar raised philosophical questions about who has the right to make and sell Chinese food. For others, the implications were practical and pressing. When can I eat my orange chicken in peace?
The politics are new, but the controversy is not. Americans have long been anxious consumers of Chinese food.
Chinese men began coming to the coastal United States in the mid-nineteenth century. Our history textbooks like to focus on the Gold Rush. But we in ASIAN 258 know better. The men who migrated from Taishan, or Toishan, in Southeast China, were part of a far larger exodus. This was an exodus that brought the world pad Thai and lumpia, chifas or Chinese-styled restaurants in Lima, and cream cheese jalapeno spring rolls in Mexico. It was also the same historical movement that inspired my ancestors to try their luck in British Malaya. My mother’s love of chilis and curry, so atypical of continental Cantonese, testified to that journey.
While the first migrants from Asia were not in the restaurant business, it wasn't long before stereotypes about Chinese cooking took hold. American ads played off stereotypes of Chinese workers as rat eaters and bakers of puppy pies (more on this Wednesday).
Despite these inauspicious beginnings, Chinese emerged as America’s cooks. But this reversal owed less to the discovery of a venerable culinary tradition than to the Exclusion Act. After its passing in 1882, Chinese immigrants basically had only two choices of profession. They could be laundromat owners or operate restaurants. Many of them chose the latter.
Chinese restaurants soon multiplied in twentieth-century US cities. Americans did not like Chinese people and would have objected to intermarrying with them (my great grandmother expressed her disappointment when she learned of my parents’ upcoming nuptials). But Americans could not live without their Chinese cooking. San Franciscans liked the way Chinese cooks prepared steaks and mixed cocktails, two staples of Chinese-run eateries. They also adored chop suey. Really adored.
Post-war Americans also appreciated the convenience and low cost of Chinese food. They found the thick brown sauces that went with the egg foo young and stir-fry to their liking. What can I say? It fit with the American cultural matrix.
But questions dogged these mainstays of the American diet. A lawsuit in the early twentieth century confirmed the suspicions of many Americans -- and stereotypes about Chinese people. Americans were also upset to learn that a visiting Chinese dignitary had not heard of chop suey. To them, Chinese cooks had turned out to be disingenuous agents when they had passed off an American invention as a Chinese delicacy.
The 70s and 80s brought renewed interest -- and scrutiny -- to Chinese food. By the mid-1960s, the Exclusion Act was retired. Chinese immigrants settled in coastal cities, moving not just from coastal Southeast China but also Taiwan. Like their predecessors, the new immigrants worked and operated restaurants. But this time, those restaurants were for the immigrants, as well as hungry Americans.
Americans of my father’s generation soon noticed the difference. The cooking of the newcomers was more varied than the stuff in classic American Chinese diners. Chinese food in America soon got a much-needed face lift. Chop suey gave way to dim sum and pot stickers.
But the real lesson came later. Millions of American heartlanders watched with fascination as Nixon took his first bite of Peking duck (and even used chop sticks!) during a state visit to China in 1972. They, too, soon clamored for “Mandarin,” then Szechuan, and Hunan. A generation of Americans like me grew up without a taste of egg foo young and chop suey. The end of the Cold War ushered in the rule of General Tso.
But what to do about the orange chicken? Should we follow Han Jiang’s advice and stick with the “real” stuff?
Here, I would have to disagree with Mr. Han. But I would grant him at least one point. Classic American Chinese ain’t much like the stuff in Asia -- at this point in time, at least. You can still find fried and breaded chicken or fish, served with some kind of sweet sauce and fruit. And yes, sweet and sour pork is still a hit with Hong Kongers. But I’m betting that if you need orange chicken, you'll be out of luck-- that is, unless you visit P.F. Chang at the Shanghai airport or one of those American Chinese nostalgia joints. Check out Ho Lee Fook if you are curious.
But why would we expect differently?
After all, Chinese food has been a staple of American life for more than a century. If there is one takeaway from this class, it would be Brownie’s Law of Local Adaptation. Any dish will mutate as it moves through space and time. Some people like to talk about inventions, distortions, and things lost in translation. I think about food through the metaphor of my mixed genes. The encounter with new ingredients and consumers will inevitably leave its mark on a dish. There’s a reason why there are marshmallows on Japanese pizzas -- and miso paste in the ramen.
If we stop to think about it, orange chicken isn’t dissimilar from ramen. I mean logically, not gastronomically. To be sure, there’s certainly a price differential. I’m waiting for the day when someone sets up a shop in Hell’s Kitchen selling orange chicken. That day may not be too far off, however. Michelin chef Brandon Jew has set up a high-end version of classic American Chinese in San Francisco.
But like other foods with legs, orange chicken resulted from a series of encounters. All sorts of encounters: commercial, intimate, and fraught encounters (here, I am thinking about inter-generational strife).
It’s easy to imagine that American Chinese was defined, or doomed, by the confrontation with the white American customer. But that is only one part of the story. The consumers -- and makers -- of Chinese food in the Americas have long been all colors. White, red, brown, black. They have existed also outside of restaurants -- in homes, for example.
Just as banana lumpia resulted from the negotiations between native Filipino women and their Chinese husbands, American Chinese cooking also sprung out of more intimate contexts. Immigrant women and their daughters have married out to American husbands at a breakneck pace in the last few generations. This has resulted in modifications. My mother knew better than to pull out the fermented tofu "cheese" at the table. She also prepared a lot of beef at home and ditched the chilis (my dad's stomach could not handle the Singaporean layer of her Cantonese cooking).
The modifications have also reflected the struggle between immigrant parents and their American-raised children. Like grocery supplies, offspring have a way of shaping diets. A kid will not only introduce the older generations to new ingredients and recipes, but also demand certain dishes and flavorings over others. The palates of children reflect more than what their parents like. School lunch programs, peers, and general market conditions have left their stamp on Chinese American cooking. You could have asked my mother. I would not eat chicken feet if my life depended on it -- or, for that matter, white rice. Blame vanity and the California cultural matrix. But there’s karma. I now find myself remaking her recipes for a picky third-generation eater. The scallions have since vanished from the pancakes.
At the end of the day, we need to get over it. Han Jiang needs to get over it. I need to get over it. Orange chicken may never satisfy the food snob in you or me, but it isn’t an insult to Chinese cooking. If someone asks you, just tell 'em it's local adaptation.
Andrew Coe, Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States (Oxford, 2009)
Yong Chen, Chop Suey, USA: The Story of Chinese Food in America. (Columbia, 2015).
John Jung, Sweet and Sour: Life in Chinese Family Restaurants (Yin and Yang, 2010).
Haiming Liu, From Canton Restaurant to Panda Express: A history of Chinese food in the United States (Rutgers, 2015).
Anne Mendelson. Chow Chop Suey: Food and the Chinese American Journey (Columbia, 2016).