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New in China: Panda Express, famous for kung pao chicken, broccoli and beef, and other American twists on Chinese food

South China Morning Post logo South China Morning Post 4 days ago Elaine Yau elaine.yau@scmp.com
a large air plane on display in a store: US-based American-Chinese fast-food chain Panda Express has come to China, opening its first outlet is in the city of Kunming. Photo: Elaine Yau © SCMP US-based American-Chinese fast-food chain Panda Express has come to China, opening its first outlet is in the city of Kunming. Photo: Elaine Yau

Panda Express, a US-based American-Chinese fast-food chain, has opened an outlet in the Chinese city of Kunming.

The move is a surprising one, as co-founder Andrew Cherng has often been quoted as saying the global chain would not enter the China market because its food does not suit the tastes of the people.

Industry analysts speculate Panda Express took the step because China, which has largely brought its Covid-19 outbreak under control, has become a safe haven for overseas food businesses to invest in.

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The Kunming outlet offers a 20-item menu, including sour and spicy fish, broccoli and beef, mushroom and fried chicken, sour and sweet shrimp, and meat ball skewers. Breakfast items include eggs that have been stewed in tea, soy bean milk, fried bread sticks, noodles, and soup dumplings.

a bowl of food on a plate: The first China branch of Panda Express, in Kunming, is open from 10am to 10.30pm and has 20 items on its menu. Photo: Elaine Yau © Provided by South China Morning Post The first China branch of Panda Express, in Kunming, is open from 10am to 10.30pm and has 20 items on its menu. Photo: Elaine Yau

The Kunming restaurant is in a shopping centre a short walk from a subway station. The average price of a meal is 15 yuan (US$2.23) per person.

Panda Express entered the China market last month with little fanfare and no public announcements. An inquiry sent to the chain by the Post on Thursday had not been answered by the time of publication.

American Chinese chain Panda Express and its 'authentic' Chinese food

O2O, a Chinese dining website, says the pandemic has changed business practices in the food and beverage industry.

"Unless vaccines become available, or ... countries around the world can bring outbreaks under control, the dining industry worldwide will be on the brink of collapse, like (it was) in February and March.

"The business difficulties and pressure Panda Express is under in all the countries in which it operates is understandable. McDonald's has closed 300 outlets in America. Similar news is breaking (all the time). The mainland China market, where the pandemic has been brought under control, has become a haven for global investment. So we welcome Panda Express to come back to its China roots."

graphical user interface, website: The first review of Panda Express left on Dianping is the only negative one: © Provided by South China Morning Post The first review of Panda Express left on Dianping is the only negative one:

Panda Express has around 2,000 outlets - 1,700 of them in the US - makes more than US$2 billion in annual sales, and is where many Americans had their first - and in some cases only - experience of Chinese food.

Panda Express was founded in 1983 by Andrew Cherng, his wife Peggy Cherng and his father Cherng Mingtsai, who was born in Yangzhou in China and who trained at a Chinese culinary arts school in Taipei, Taiwan. The elder Cherng went on to become a chef in Japan before migrating to Los Angeles to start the predecessor of Panda Express, Panda Inn, in the 1970s.

Panda Express has had its share of criticism throughout its nearly four-decade history, not least for its supposed lack of authenticity because much of the food is deep-fried and high in sugar. Some dishes popular in the US, such as orange chicken, and honey sesame chicken breast, are unheard of in China, and its kung pao chicken tastes oilier and sweeter than the original Sichuan dish.

graphical user interface, application: This diner left a review saying they would come again. Photo: Dianping © Provided by South China Morning Post This diner left a review saying they would come again. Photo: Dianping

The Cherngs have brushed off the criticism, saying that they had never aimed to serve authentic Chinese food.

Andrea Cherng, daughter of Andrew Cherng and the company's chief marketing officer, told Business Insider in 2016: "Panda Express is a story of immigrant Chinese chefs and families coming to the US, for what they hope will be a better life. It's a story of taking the recipes and the repertoire of their own culinary skill set and making it appeal to (the American) national palate."

Although it might be assumed that Panda Express would have to move away from its America-centric world view to appeal to local tastes now that its first China outlet is open, people in China seem to have taken a liking to its dishes. Of the four reviews posted on Dianping, China's biggest food and dining guide, three offer glowing praise.

graphical user interface, application, website: Three out of the four diner reviews posted on Dianping are filled with glowing praise. Photo: Dianping © Provided by South China Morning Post Three out of the four diner reviews posted on Dianping are filled with glowing praise. Photo: Dianping

The first review, left on September 27, is the only negative one, saying: "Is it that the restaurant doesn't want any repeat customers? The food tastes bad and is pricey."

Another user wrote: "The taste is very good. The amount of the food is sufficient. My friend who ate with me also thinks it is OK. I will come again."

One wrote: "The environment is good. The food is good. There's a large amount of food. It's a good bargain. I come here every day to eat because it's cheap and convenient. What is more, I can eat the skewers. I give it five stars."

graphical user interface: Another review of Panda Express on Dianping, China's biggest food review website. Photo: Dianping © Provided by South China Morning Post Another review of Panda Express on Dianping, China's biggest food review website. Photo: Dianping

Asked if Panda Express could open further outlets in China, Marco Lai Tak-fat - a Hongkonger who has co-founded several restaurants in Beijing, including Tai Loong Fat Kee - says fast-food ventures can be run as franchises with an unlimited number of outlets.

"For McDonald's, the pre-packaged meat patty can be fried by unskilled staff for a fixed number of minutes. Likewise, the pre-packaged components of a Chinese meal can be made in a central kitchen and then transported to the different outlets for heating up before serving.

"That explains the prevalence of fast-food chain Fairwood in Hong Kong or Kungfu in China. But this cannot deliver quality Chinese food, since it takes skills from Chinese chefs to cook food on the spot, which is very difficult to standardise."

That is why quality Chinese food brands that originate in China cannot be found operating overseas, Lai adds.

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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.

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