The cloying sweet dish that you get in Chinese takeout restaurants called Orange Chicken, with a commercial nod to the American love of the “sweet” in the sweet/sour equation, is quite different from the home cooked orange chicken that is made in the homes of Szechuan (also spelled Sichuan) province. The Chinese characters for this meal literally translate as “dried citrus peel chicken”. That authentic meal is redolent with tart citrus flavors… as well as the naturally occurring sweet/sour umami flavors brought by Chinese black vinegar, Shaoxing wine, fermented broad bean chili paste, dark soy, and Szechuan peppers. In this feast we have attempted to reestablish the cultural bedrock, the touchstone of this legendary feast, which reveals and the Szechuan grandmothers’ savory traditions, where the flavors are all distinct, layered, complex and addictive.
We use Szechuan peppers in this feast, and although few other American recipes call for that, it is commonly used in Szechuan province. The tingling mesmerizing qualities of Szechuan Peppers is a sensation we associate with authentic meals from this southern region of China, and this meal is far more compelling with it included. The Chinese characters for Szechuan Peppers translates to “numb hot”… which is a perfect description of what happens in your mouth when you eat them. It’s absolutely addictive.
The Tequila we add keeps the chicken crust crispy by preventing the formation of gluten, which thickens and softens the coating… it also adds another flavor dimension for this feast and is a cool mashup between Mexico and China.
We also add sesame seeds to our orange chicken because we like the way the two flavors compliment each other. We also occasionally make this meal without deep frying the chicken, just frying in cast iron… either way, we love the tart fresh orange/citrus flavors sparking off the deeply satisfying umami ingredients that can only come from Szechuan Province. Enjoy!
1 1/2 to 2 pounds boneless and skinless chicken thighs, free range and air chilled, cut into 3/4 inch to 1 inch chunks
1 egg white, whipped
1 tablespoon Szechuan Peppers, lightly toasted in a pan and then ground (if you love the sensation of “numb-hot” from Szechuan Peppers, as we do, use 2 tablespoons)
1 tablespoons chili oil
1 heaping tablespoon fermented chili bean paste
2 tablespoons orange marmalade (we use Mrs. Bridges, it has honey and sugar already inside so we don’t need much sugar in this recipe, and we prefer this meal a bit tart, to bring out the bright citrus flavors)
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 tablespoons Chinese Black Vinegar, (or rice vinegar or white vinegar with a teaspoon of aged Balsamic)
2 teaspoons light brown sugar
3 tablespoons dark soy sauce (1 tablespoon for the marinade, 2 for the cooking sauce)
4 tablespoons Chinese Shaoxing rice wine (2 tablespoons for the marinade, 2 for the cooking sauce) If you can’t find the real deal Shaoxing wine, use Sherry mixed with 1/3 mirin.
2 teaspoons sesame oil
2 tablespoons Tequila
1/2 cup rice flour (lighter and more delicate than all purpose flour, but both work well)
1/2 cup corn starch or arrowroot (which we prefer for meals with lots of vinegar), plus 3 tablespoons for the marinade, and 1 tablespoon for the cooking sauce
3 tablespoons canola oil (for the cooking sauce)
5 to 6 large cloves garlic, crushed
2 tablespoons ginger, grated (about 2 inches)
6 scallions (green onions), green and white parts separated and chopped
4 tablespoons orange zest, and the juice of the same orange (we use Tangelo oranges)
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds (optional)
1 star anise (optional)
1 teaspoon salt (to taste)
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
2 cups peanut oil (for frying)
Lightly salt the chicken thighs and cut into approximately one inch squares.
The marinade… In a medium bowl, whip the egg white until foamy and add half of the following ingredients: the Shaoxing rice wine, the rice vinegar and 1/3 of the dark soy sauce… and all of the following ingredients: Tequila, the juice from the zested orange, 3 tablespoons of corn starch and the baking soda. Whisk to blend well.
Place the chicken in a large shallow dish, apply the marinade and stir in well, making sure each piece of chicken is thoroughly coated. Set aside to marinate for 10 to 30 minutes.
The cooking sauce… in a small bowl combine the rest of the Shaoxing rice wine, the rice vinegar, 2/3 of the dark soy sauce, and all of the sesame oil, Chinese Black Vinegar, brown sugar, and stir in 1 tablespoon of cornstarch until completely dissolved. (It tends to settle on the bottom of the bowl so keep it stirred until combined with the chicken.) Now add the chili oil, fermented chili paste, and the orange marmalade.
In a skillet, combine the 2 tablespoons of canola oil with the garlic, ginger and the white chopped scallions and heat to a sizzle on medium heat until they are aromatic but not yet browned.
Add the cooking sauce and simmer until it bubbles and thickens. We want the cooking sauce to marry for a minute or two, but please don’t boil it, too much heat will lessen the aromatic and savory umami flavors.
The dusting powder… in a another medium bowl, mix together the rice flour or all purpose flour, the arrowroot or corn starch, baking powder, the 2 teaspoons salt and mix well.
(Note: All of the above prep work can be done the day before, so that when you actually have family or guests for dinner, most of the work is already done.)
Place the dusting flour into a one gallon plastic zip lock bag and toss the chicken pieces, about 8 to 12 at a time, until they are all completely dusted. Set the chicken aside.
With the wok on the highest BTUs possible, heat the 2 cups of peanut oil until smoking. Using tongs, gently place 8 to 12 chicken chunks at a time into the hot oil and fry until golden and crunchy, stirring occasionally, about 45 seconds. Place each fully cooked golden chicken piece on paper towels so the oils on the surface are reduced.
When all the chicken nuggets are fried, pour the hot oil into another container and discard. Using the still hot wok, add all the chicken back and toss with the cooking sauce until each piece is well coated and glossy… about 2 minutes.
Remove from the heat, sprinkle on the toasted sesame seeds (if you like them as much as we do), the orange zest, the ground Szechuan Peppers, star anise (ground), and the chopped green tops of the scallions. Stir well.
Serve while hot with jasmine rice, with some orange marmalade as a condiment.
You can also place the chicken in a bowl for the table and using the wok and some previously reserved cooking sauce, quickly stir fry some vegetables, like broccoli or baby bok choy.
Serves 4 to 6.