Yes, it’s a variant of sweet sour chicken. No, it’s not Chinese although it may have been inspired by a Hunan dish called tangerine chicken. The Hunan dish is spicy; orange chicken is sweet and sour. The accepted history of orange chicken is that it was created by Chef Andy Lau of Panda Express back in 1987.
What makes orange chicken so good? I’m not privy to the secrets of Panda Express but I do have a few tricks to ensure that the chicken meat is succulent, and the orange flavor and aroma are pronounced without overwhelming.
For starters, I use skin on chicken thigh fillets. It’s more tasty than breast meat and it can withstand deep frying without losing flavor. Next, I’m a firm believer in the wonders of marinating the chicken despite being cut into small pieces. I also add finely grated orange zest to the marinade.
I don’t add starch dissolved in water (called slurry in America, a term that makes me roll my eyes) to thicken the sauce. Instead, I create a syrup by boiling down sugar with orange juice and vinegar. For added orange-y flavor and aroma, I throw in orange zest to the sauce too. And, for subtle heat and even more flavor and aroma, ginger is a must.
In making the syrup, it is essential that the heat be turned off at the right time. It takes about ten minutes for the sauce to reach the ideal syrupy stage. It may appear too thin but note that the sauce thickens as it cools so don’t wait for it to turn too thick.
To make sure that the surface of the chicken turns crisp while the inside remains moist, do not overcrowd the pan during frying. If your pan is not large enough to cook all the chicken cubes in a single batch, divide the chicken into portions and fry one portion at a time.
With a beautiful sauce done right and crispy chicken pieces fried correctly, all that remains to be done is to toss them together to let the sauce coat the surface of every piece of chicken and reach the deepest nook and cranny.
Full recipe below
- zest from ½ orange
- ½ cup white sugar
- 2 tablespoons rice vinegar
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon grated ginger
- 2 tablespoons orange juice
To cook orange chicken
- ¼ cup tapioca starch - or potato starch or corn starch
- cooking oil
- orange wedges
- thinly sliced scallions
Marinate the chicken
- Pat the chicken fillets dry and cut into two-inch cubes.
- Place the chicken and all the ingredients for the marinade, except the orange, in a bowl and mix well.
- Cut the orange into halves; reserve one portion.
- Finely grate the zest of half an orange and mix into the chicken.
- Cover the bowl and marinate the chicken in the fridge for 30 minutes.
Make the sauce
- Using a paring knife or a vegetable peeler, cut off the zest of the reserved orange half.
- Put the orange zest and all the ingredients for the sauce in a small sauce pan.
- Cook the sauce over medium heat, occasionally swirling the pan, until syrupy (see notes after the recipe). Set aside.
Fry the chicken
- In a wok or frying pan, heat enough cooking oil to reach a depth of at least three inches.
- Take the chicken out of the fridge and stir.
- Take the half orange (from which the zest used in the marinade was taken) and cut into wedges.
- Add the tapioca starch to the chicken and toss to distribute evenly.
- Fry the battered chicken until browned and lightly crisp (see notes after the recipe). Scoop out the chicken and move to a strainer or rack.
Assemble the orange chicken
- Pour off the oil (you may reuse it) from the pan.
- Strain the orange sauce directly into the pan.
- Heat the sauce until bubbly.
- Add the cooked chicken to the sauce and toss them around until each piece is generously coated with the syrupy sauce.
- Stir in the orange wedges.
- Transfer the cooked orange chicken to a shallow bowl, sprinkle with sliced scallions and serve at once.