“I was well into my 30s before trying the orange chicken from Panda Express,” Jon Kung says in their new cookbook. This led the chef to researching this iconic dish.
“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,” they decided to get the orange flavor from Faygo orange pop — and now they’re sharing this recipe in Kung Food: Chinese American Recipes from a Third-Culture Kitchen, which was reprinted here with Kung’s permission.
Chicken and marinade
- 6 pieces dried tangerine peel, chopped
- 1⁄4 cup Shaoxing wine
- 2 tablespoons light soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon ras el hanout
- 2 teaspoons ground cumin
- 1⁄4 teaspoon MSG
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 2 teaspoons freshly ground white pepper
- 2 pounds boneless skin-on chicken thighs, cut into roughly 1-inch cubes
- 3 (12-ounce) cans orange Faygo or other orange soda
- 2 tablespoons Chinese red vinegar
- 2/3 cup sugar
- 2 teaspoons sweet paprika
- 2 teaspoons ground turmeric
- 3 star anise pods
- 2 black cardamom pods, cracked
- 4 pieces cup dried orange or tangerine peel, ground or minced
- Neutral oil
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- 3 cups potato starch Kosher salt
- 2 tablespoons neutral oil
- 4 garlic cloves, grated
- 2 thumb-size pieces fresh ginger, peeled and minced or grated
- 2 to 4 dried Szechuan chilies, chopped
- 5 whole chilies for the drama (optional — but is it, really?)
- 2 tablespoons Szechuan peppercorns
- 1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons Shaoxing wine
- Steamed rice, for serving
1. Marinate the chicken
Place the tangerine peel in a spice grinder and pulverize it to a powder. You should end up with 2 teaspoons — 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.
2. Meanwhile, make the orange sauce
In a medium saucepan, combine the Faygo, 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.)
3. Fry the chicken
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 teaspoon 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.
Reprinted with permission from Kung Food: Chinese American Recipes from a Third-Culture Kitchen by Jon Kung © 2023. Photographs © 2023 by Johnny Miller. Published by Clarkson Potter, an imprint of Penguin Random House. To purchase the book, visit prh.com or your retailer of choice.
This story is from the October 2023 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition. Plus, find even more recipes including Oak & Reel’s Seasonal Crostini and Pinky’s Rooftop’s Mushroom Toast at hourdetroit.com.