For years, my in-laws owned a restaurant in Castro Valley, California, serving up the Americanized Chinese dishes to customers craving deep-fried wontons, pot stickers, crispy chow mein, sweet-and-sour pork, and egg foo young. Although these Westernized creations aren’t authentically Chinese, they reflected the tastes of Americans in the 1950s and 1960s who were dipping their toes in the “exotic” flavors of Asia for the first time.
Back then, a whopping 90 percent of all Chinese immigrants in the U.S. came from a tiny area the size of Rhode Island in the southern province of Guangdong (Canton), so it’s no surprise that the flavor profiles of this new hybrid cuisine were distinctly Cantonese-American. And that’s what my in-laws offered on their menu.
But over the years, as immigration expanded to other parts of China, Americanized Chinese food began taking on more flavors from other regions of China, from Fujian to Sichuan. Westernized Chinese cuisine began rapidly evolving.
Orange chicken—battered and fried chicken pieces slathered in a thick glaze of sweet orange-chili sauce—is one of the Chinese-American dishes that surged in popularity during this period. Hunan in origin, orange chicken started popping up in Chinese restaurants across America over the past few decades.
Sadly, as this dish made its way to fast food Chinese joints, the recipes got sloppier and sloppier. The gloopy version you’ll find at the mall food court these days is often grosser than gross; it’s coated in soggy clumps of batter and drowning in overly sweet, artificially colored sauce. This incarnation of orange chicken isn’t even remotely close to real-food-friendly.
Wanna try my recipe for Orange Sriracha Chicken instead?
ORANGE SRIRACHA CHICKEN
Makes 4 servings
- 1 medium yellow onion, roughly chopped
- 1 cup fresh basil leaves, packed
- ½ cup orange juice
- 4 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
- 1 tablespoon fish sauce
- 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
- 1 teaspoon tomato paste
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Orange Sriracha Sauce:
- ½ cup orange juice
- 2 tablespoons honey
- 1 tablespoon Paleo Sriracha (hey, hotheads: you can add more, but just know that you’ll be reducing the sauce and therefore concentrating the heat)
- 1 tablespoon ghee
- 1 teaspoon coconut aminos
- 1 teaspoon toasted sesame seeds (optional)
- Kosher salt
Here’s what you do:
In a large bowl, sprinkle the salt on the chicken, and set aside.
To make the marinade, toss the onion, basil, orange juice, garlic, fish sauce, balsamic vinegar, tomato paste, and pepper in a food processor or high-powered blender.
Purée until smooth.
Pour the mixture over the chicken, making sure that all the drumsticks are well-coated.
Cover and marinate the chicken in the refrigerator for at least an hour and up to 12 hours.
When you’re ready to cook, take the bowl of chicken out of the fridge and preheat the oven to 400°F. Place a wire rack on top of a foil-lined baking sheet.
Transfer the drumsticks to the wire rack. Spoon some extra marinade onto each piece of chicken. Bake for 40 minutes or until cooked through and the skin is golden brown, flipping each piece and turning the baking sheet at the halfway point.
While the chicken’s in the oven, make the Orange Sriracha Sauce. In a small saucepan, stir together the orange juice, honey, sriracha, ghee, and coconut aminos.
Cook over high heat. Once it’s at a boil, turn down the heat to low, and reduce the sauce until it’s thickened (about 3 to 5 minutes).
Taste and—if necessary—season with salt to taste.
After 40 minutes in the oven…
…brush a thin layer of the Orange Sriracha Sauce on each drumstick, and then roast for 5 more minutes.
Then, take the tray out of the oven…
…and use a brush to glaze the chicken with the remaining sauce.
If desired, add a sprinkle of toasted sesame seeds.
The marinade gives these chicken drumsticks a rich, herby under-layer of flavor, while the spicy sriracha and sweet, citrusy notes of the sauce provide a tongue-tingling balance to this umami-packed dish.
Best of all, even my toughest critics—a.k.a. my children—couldn’t get enough of these drumsticks.
If you’re feeling nostalgic for orange chicken, give this recipe a go, and let me know what you think!
Looking for more recipes like this one? Head on over to my Recipe Index. You’ll also find exclusive recipes on my iPad® app, and in my cookbook, Nom Nom Paleo: Food for Humans (Andrews McMeel, December 2013).