Panda Express

Meet “the chork”: a fork-chopstick hybrid that is, depending on whom you ask, genius, stupid, fun or ridiculous, and most likely a mixture of these things. The internet was in an uproar earlier this month when Panda Express, America’s largest Chinese food chain, announced it will introduce the chork on some occasions.

For the uninitiated, the chork can be used three ways. It can be used as a fork, for Americans who prefer to stick to stabbing and scooping, or as “trainer” chopsticks, where the ends remain attached, making them easier to use. Or the plastic can be snapped apart to make "normal" chopsticks.

The internet is buzzing about the 'chork'; the fork-chopstick love child that America deserves. (Daron Taylor,Jhaan Elker/The Washington Post)

As we'll see, the chork represents the inevitable culmination of America’s long tradition of Chinese food apostasy.

Utah-based Brown Innovation Group has been making the product for several years, but Panda Express’s announcement catapulted the chork to Internet fame. Today.com called it “the kitchen-utensil equivalent of the mullet.” Said GQ: “It’s a little gauche, but so is most of American culture in 2016.”

Part of the appeal, of course, is the inherent comedy of hybrid utensils. Think of the spork, not to mention the silverware drawer’s lesser-known illegitimate children, the knork, the spoonstraw, the spife and the woon. Then there is the product’s name, which to some was akin to the sound of choking on orange chicken.

Others described the product as either a brilliant solution for the challenge of chopsticks, or a somewhat offensive way of preventing coddled Americans from having to learn about other cultures. The product does make non-Asians seem pretty inept: A marketing video for the chork shows white people helplessly covering themselves in noodles while trying to use chopsticks.

Panda Express had a more positive take. In an interview, chief marketing officer Andrea Cherng called it a “great symbol of both our American and Chinese origins. It is distinctly Chinese and yet has the approachability of the fork that allows it to be the combination of both approachable and authentic, which is what we strive for with our food."

Jokes aside, that approach does ring true for the company. Like Panda Express and American Chinese food more broadly, the chork is inspired by Chinese elements but heavily adapted — the kind of mutant mash-up that has regularly emerged from the fires of America's melting pot.

So it seemed fitting that the chork was part of another announcement: that Panda Express would be introducing that unique Chinese American creation, General Tso’s chicken. More than any other dish, General Tso’s represents the path that American Chinese food has taken since Chinese chefs began catering to popular American tastes.

Many of the dishes that Americans know as Chinese food are heavily adapted, and some aren’t present in China at all. Chop suey was invented in San Francisco, for example. Fortune cookies were popularized as Chinese food in the U.S., but may have originally come from Japan.

China doesn’t have orange chicken — Panda Express invented that — though the Cantonese make lemon chicken. China doesn’t have American-style egg rolls; it has deep-fried spring rolls, with a thinner wrapper. China only recently started importing the cream cheese needed for crab rangoon. China also does not have what Americans think of as Chinese take-out boxes, though they really should — many places still put takeout in leaky Styrofoam boxes.

But the menu item that is the most uniquely American is probably General Tso’s chicken, the lightly battered chicken with a spicy sweet-and-sour sauce that’s universal in the United States but only found in China rarely and in recent years. The history of the dish is explored in the fascinating 2014 documentary “The Search for General Tso.”

General Tso was a real guy – he was a 19th century war hero from the south-central province of Hunan. But he didn’t have any special involvement with chicken. According to the documentary, "The Search for General Tso," he was merely the namesake for a dish invented by a Hunanese chef, Peng Chang-kuei.

Peng fled to Taiwan in 1949 with China’s Nationalist government, which had just been defeated by Mao Zedong’s Communists, where he invented a precursor. Then the history of the dish becomes a bit murky. According to the documentary, a chef named T.T. Wang tried the dish in Taiwan and brought it to New York. Chef Peng then followed his competition to New York, where he opened his own restaurant to serve the dish. Sugar was also added to the spicy-sour dish to adapt it for American tastes, creating the General Tso’s Americans love today.

Traditional Hunanese food is sweat-your-brains-out spicy, not sweet. Some Chinese cuisines, like Shanghainese and Cantonese, do have sweet-and-sour dishes, but the flavor profile is far less common in China than in the United States.

Instead, Chinese food presents a bewildering variety of tastes and textures — mouth-numbing spice in the west, meat-and-potatoes stews in the northeast, and cumin-laced lamb and bread in the far northwest. The southwest has edible flowers, mashed potatoes, mint salad and even cheese. (The map below, of cuisines by ingredient, shows that variety.) Many Chinese cuisines also incorporate foods most Americans find unpalatable — frog, small amounts of meat or skin on the bone, feet, heads and intestines.

Compared with that variety, Chinese generally see American Chinese food, like General Tso's chicken, as terribly sweet. “Like candy” or “like a dish made for kids,” some have said to me.

Today, Chinese restaurants all over the United States make General Tso’s, and their recipes differ. In developing their dish, Panda Express sampled versions up and down the East Coast. The chork will appear as part of this release.

The chork, of course, isn’t Chinese, but like most American Chinese dishes, it has a distant precedent. Many Chinese kids use trainer chopsticks that are fused together at the end, like the chork. (Most people just buy small plastic additions to put on normal chopsticks. In a pinch, you can make a DIY version with a rubber band.)

Panda Express doesn’t currently plan to make the chork a regular fixture; Cherng says the company is looking into whether to "regularly gift" it to guests. But the company will give the chork away at special events, including at most stores on Nov. 10 to celebrate General Tso’s birthday.

Note: This post has been updated to add information about T.T. Wang. 

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