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Orange Chicken Needs Rebranding – MMXLII

Orange Chicken Needs Rebranding

Two friends have traveled together to a new city, and are wandering the streets looking for somewhere to eat. One is a self-proclaimed “foodie,” the other is no such thing, but does harbor an appreciation for quality consumables. At some point during the search the two pass a local franchise of a national chain of Chinese fast-food, well-known for its signature dish – orange chicken. Friend number two suggests stopping for lunch, the foodie is appalled, labeling the chain “inauthentic” and suggesting a nearby food truck as a more palatable alternative. The food truck is eventually located, and the two friends gorge themselves on burritos, topped with sour cream and salsa and filled with Korean-style barbecue short ribs and kimchee.
The scenario is as puzzling as it is likely. Why would the foodie reject the “inauthentic” orange chicken for a hybrid meal authentic neither to the Korean cuisine from which it derives its content, nor the Americanized version of Mexican cuisine (itself of dubious authenticity) from which it derives its form?

A look back at history only makes the distinction more baffling. If (likely innacurate) legend is to be believed, that most authentically Italian of dishes, pasta, is nothing more than Italianized-Chinese food, or maybe China-ized-Italian food. No European dish containing chocolate, derived from the New World coca bean, could really be considered authentic, nor any New World dish with chicken. Go back far enough and you’ll find that nothing’s truly authentic, that most every cuisine and culture in the world has borrowed not just condiments or side dishes but staples and mainstays from other cultures and continents.
So why the newfound fixation on authenticity? An easy answer might be that when anyone with money can get anywhere in days and hours instead of weeks and months, when culture is imported and exported as easily as files on a computer, and the ingredients in your meal are more likely to be the product of another country than of your local farm, authenticity is a value in scarce supply, and as a result greater demand.
That doesn’t quite explain our initial scenario though, with the foodie and his less-enlightened friend. It may be easy to imagine why the stock certain people place in authenticity has risen as of late, but why is it applied so inconsistently?
The answer seems to lie in a different sort of authenticity. “Be true to thine own self,” said Shakespeare (or, more accurately, his Hamlet-villain Polonius) and that’s the quality a Korean BBQ burrito has and a plate of orange chicken doesn’t. The food truck doesn’t hide from its inauthenticity – it celebrates it, inauthenticity (in the perhaps euphemistic form of “fusion”) is an essential aspect of its brand.
Orange chicken though, and the national fast food chain that peddles it, try to present themselves as something else – not a glorious combination of Chinese flavors with the techniques and high-calorie aesthetic of American fast food, but as some sort of purely Chinese creation, unsullied by foreign influence. If such a thing does exist, it is certainly not orange chicken. That being said, orange chicken seems to be doing just fine based on other merits – salt content, sugar content, and that most impeccable of culinary recommendations, having been deep-fried. It’s doubtful that a rebranding is necessary for financial reasons, but if the purveyors of orange chicken ever wanted to reach a smaller but pickier demographic, they might consider relabeling their product American-Chinese fusion.
Photo from www.justapinch.com.

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