I was well into my thirties before trying the orange chicken from Panda Express, and randomly one day my curiosity got the better of me and I ordered some. It was fine. I’m not really in the business of being dramatic about food that’s not for me, but something so iconic warranted some research. Orange chicken seems to have originated from a Hunanese dish called chen pi ji (orange peel chicken), in which pieces of chicken are flavored with orange peel and chilies. To accommodate local palates, I assume the spice was toned down and the sweetness was brought up. I wanted to bring it back to its origin story a little bit but respect the fact that –while this dish has relatives in China – orange chicken is an American icon, which is something I wanted to lean into. In a bit of a chaotic move, I decided to get the orange flavour from a Detroit local soda called Faygo (whose factory is not far down the street from the Studio).
This recipe might look daunting, but it happens in stages; the chicken marinates for at least a few hours, and while that’s happening, you can make the orange sauce and refrigerate it until you finish the dish later – or even the next day. You’ll find quite a few dishes cooked in this style where proteins are fried and then sauced, and it’s for a good reason: It produces delicious stuff. I double fry the chicken to maximize the crispiness (hat tip to the Koreans who figured this out for their fried chicken). Dried tangerine peel is easily available at Asian groceries or online. –Jon Kung
Chicken and Marinade
- 6 pieces dried tangerine peel chopped
- ¼ cup Shaoxing wine
- 2 tbsp light soy sauce
- 1 tbsp ras el hanout
- 2 tsp ground cumin
- ¼ tsp MSG
- 2 tsp kosher salt
- 2 tsp freshly ground white pepper
- 2 lbs boneless skin-on chicken thighs cut into roughly 1-inch cubes
- 3 12 oz cans orange soda such as Faygo
- 2 tbsp Chinese red vinegar
- ⅔ cup sugar
- 2 tsp sweet paprika
- 2 tsp ground turmeric
- 3 star anise pods
- 2 black cardamom pods cracked
- 4 pieces dried orange or tangerine peel ground or minced
- neutral oil
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- 3 cups potato starch
- kosher salt
- 2 tbsp neutral oil
- 4 garlic cloves grated
- 2 thumb-size pieces fresh ginger peeled and minced or grated
- 2-4 dried Szechuan chilies chopped
- 5 whole chilies optional
- 2 tbsp Szechuan peppercorns
- 1 tbsp dark soy sauce
- 2 tbsp Shaoxing wine
- steamed rice
Chicken and Marinade
- Place the tangerine peel in a spice grinder and pulverize it to a powder. You should end up with 2 tsp – put it in a large bowl with the wine, soy sauce, ras el hanout, cumin, MSG, salt and white pepper and mix until well combined. Add the chicken and toss to evenly coat. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours and up to 12 hours.
- In a medium saucepan, combine the soda, vinegar, sugar, paprika, turmeric, star anise, cardamom and orange peel. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to medium and cook until the sauce is thick and syrupy but still pourable, about 30 minutes, depending on the strength of your burner and the size and shape of your saucepan. Set the sauce aside. (The sauce can be cooled and stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a week.)
- Fill a wok or Dutch oven with oil to a depth of 3 inches and heat the oil over medium-high heat to 350°F. Set a large wire rack nearby.
- Combine the flour, potato starch and 1 tsp salt in a large bowl. Working in batches, toss the chicken pieces in the flour mixture to coat well, then carefully add them to the hot oil (don’t overcrowd the pot). Adjust the heat to maintain a temperature between 350° and 375°F and cook just until the chicken is very light golden brown, about 3 minutes (it won’t be cooked through). Use a slotted spoon or spider to transfer the chicken to the rack to drain. Repeat with the remaining chicken pieces.
- Again, working in batches, return the parcooked chicken to the hot oil and fry for 2 to 3 minutes, until it becomes a deeper golden brown – at this point, it’ll be cooked through. Transfer the fully cooked chicken back to the rack to drain, and season with salt before it fully dries. Repeat with the remaining parcooked pieces.
- Once the chicken is cooked, heat a wok or very large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the oil, garlic, ginger, chopped chilies, whole chilies (if using) and Szechuan peppercorns and stir for only about 10 seconds before adding the dark soy sauce and the wine. Stir in the orange sauce and heat until it is thick and bubbling, about 5 minutes, then add the fried chicken and toss to evenly coat with the sauce. Serve immediately with rice.