When it comes to Chinese food, what’s more fundamental than white rice?
It’s eaten during breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It can be steamed, fried, wrapped into dumplings, and boiled into porridge. In China, people eat about four servings of rice daily, or about 95 kilograms per capita each year (pdf), and about all of that is white rice. But Panda Express decided that the time has come to reconsider the role of fluffy white rice in Chinese food. This month, the chain started making fried rice exclusively using brown rice, which they say is healthier.
Purists may be shocked—how could this California-based company decide to toss aside this esteemed culinary tradition? What if Big Macs came only on poppy seed buns? Or PB&J on rye toast? Luckily, Panda Express, an American-Chinese chain, never claimed to be catering only to purists.
Many Chinese takeout joints in the U.S. now serve brown rice as an option, though in nearly four years working in Shanghai, I was never offered that choice at a “local” restaurant. This is a big switch for a chain with more than 1,500 stores and projected sales of $1.7 billion this year. Glenn Lunde, Panda’s chief marketing officer, says consumers shouldn’t worry. Plain steamed white rice remains a menu option, it’s just that the fried rice now will all be made using the brown variety, which is high in fiber and contains more nutrients, such as magnesium, manganese, and zinc. Anyway, he says, regular fried rice was brown in color to start with, so the sight of it shouldn’t traumatize consumers too much.
The switch is part of the chain’s 30th anniversary rebrand, which also includes an updated logo, a new slogan, “Make life delicious,” and a new store design. Lunde says Panda will emphasize “taste, quality, health, and sustainability,” which is where the brown rice comes in.
Noodles are next—the chow mein will soon all be whole grain.
The chain does offer plain, steamed brown rice, too, but “if you just sell steamed brown rice, you’re not going to sell that much,” says Lunde, and fewer people would get the health benefits of the switch. So the chain slipped it into the fried rice, masked with other ingredients—like mixing vitamins into your kid’s dinner. “Aren’t we fabulous?” Lunde says, referring to the chain’s effort to get people to eat more healthily.
It also means, ironically, the way to get most people to eat the healthier kind of rice is to fry it. “If that’s what makes people feel better eating it, to say, I am having brown rice because it’s healthier, then OK,” says Mary Kong-DeVito, editor of GirlMeetsFood.com, an online food guide based in Washington, D.C. “Personally, I think if you’re going to Panda Express in the first place, the brown rice isn’t going to save you.”