National Orange Chicken Day is celebrated on July 15 each year, and whatever its original claim to fame, we’re so glad it came to Chinese restaurants all over North America to delight our palates with another delectable dish from the Orient. Interestingly enough, the orange chicken, which many Americans know and love, is not strictly authentic to any original Chinese dish, though the flavor profile is inspired by the Hunan Province of China. Some of the most beloved versions can essentially be described as chicken nuggets tossed in a delightfully tangy, zesty, sticky sauce which contains most Asian food staples like vinegar, soy sauce, ginger, and garlic.
History of Orange Chicken Day
Celebrated annually since the year 2017, National Orange Chicken Day is a literal feast for the senses. While it is not clear who officiated this holiday, the origin of the dish itself can be traced back to some controversial claims.
More than 2,100 years ago, Hunan cuisine reached its peak standard due to the sheer range of dishes it offered (over 4,000), along with its cooking techniques. Located in the southeastern regions of China, the Hunan Province is known for its spicy and sour food, with one-star ingredients shining in each dish. The colors were vibrant, the fragrance fresh, and the food greasy and immensely satisfying. Therefore, the tangerine chicken was most likely the precursor of the orange chicken dish which we all enjoy today. Tangerine chicken originated in the Hunan Province and its Chinese name literally translates to “dried citrus peel chicken.” It had a more fresh and spicy flavor than the orange chicken, which evolved in later days.
During the 1800s, Chinese immigrants from China’s Guangdong District migrated to the U.S. in pursuit of the “American Dream.” They brought with them this style of making chicken with dried orange peels, but it was not deep-fried with any batter or coating, nor was it sweet. Due to a lack of job opportunities at the time, coupled with social issues like racism and anti-immigrant sentiment, Chinese business owners opened up restaurants to cater to the growing immigrant population coming in from China. By the 1970s, most of the original meat dishes from traditional Chinese cuisine were adapted to suit the American palate (i.e. made sweeter, less spicy), as Chinese food increased in popularity among Americans.
This included the evolution of tangerine chicken into orange chicken, and many competing chefs claim to have invented it. One such chef is T.T. Wang of New York’s Hunan Restaurant, whose orange beef is very similar to orange chicken. Others say it’s a version of General Tso’s Chicken (another popular Americanized-Chinese dish). Perhaps the most famous version of the dish is Andy Kho’s, who was a chef in Panda Express, Hawaii, and invented their specialty dish in 1987. Whatever the case, we’re just glad to have a reason to reach for that takeout menu and order ourselves up a serving or two of this culinary delight.
Orange Chicken Day timeline
Chinese immigrants from Guangdong District migrating to the U.S. bring their sweet-ish cuisine with them.
Invented in Beijing, orange beef becomes a hit in restaurants and is close in nature to orange chicken.
While working at a Panda Express in Hawaii, Kho comes up with the now-famous Panda Express Orange Chicken.
According to reports, Panda Express sells more than 65 million pounds of just orange chicken.
Orange Chicken Day FAQs
Did Panda Express create orange chicken?
One of the most popular dishes at Panda Express (the North American Chinese franchise) is their version of Orange Chicken. What makes it so special, and such a hit, is its chili sauce, which is orange flavored. It has been on the Panda Express menu for decades now, since it was conceived by Chef Andy Kho, back in 1987. It definitely takes its inspiration from the flavor profile of the Hunan Province of China, but we do not know who created the original recipe.
Is orange chicken a real Chinese dish?
Since its induction into North American Chinese restaurants, this dish has risen to stardom, with different Chinese restaurant chains claiming responsibility for the same. While it has been modified, and variations exist, it can still be traced back to original Chinese cuisine, especially as a part of the Hunan province of China.
What does orange chicken taste like?
Bursting with flavor, especially the tangy, zingy goodness of orange — this chicken dish hits all the right notes. At the base is the crispy fried chicken taste we all know and love, then there’s the sticky sweet and salty notes of sugar, orange juice, and soya sauce. The ultimate distinguisher is the citrusy bitterness of orange rind which tops it off and makes it irresistible.
Orange Chicken Day Activities
Feast on orange chicken
Nothing is as authentic as going straight to the source, so pick any of the famous American-Chinese franchises you know of, and get to ordering. You are sure to find it on the menu of the most well-known Chinese fast-food joints.
Make it an occasion
For those who want a more stylized experience, why not organize an authentic Hunan Province-themed dinner party, with recipes originating from there? You could try your hand at the original tangerine chicken, or even make it a citrus-food-themed dinner. The possibilities are endless.
Know your Chinese-American history
The history of orange chicken, along with so many other Americanized Chinese dishes is a rich and varied one, which you will find fascinating. It is so tied up in the evolution of immigrant populations and culture; of which food is such a crucial aspect. We recommend you start with the documentary film “The Search for General Tso,” to whet your appetite. Even better, watch it while scarfing up some Orange Chicken takeout!
Top 5 Most Popular Adapted Chinese Chicken Dishes Worldwide
General Tso’s chicken
Crispy fried chicken stir-fried in a sweet and spicy sauce.
Kung Pao chicken
Diced chicken stir-fried with peanuts, Sichuan peppercorns, and assorted vegetables.
Crumbed chicken pieces deep-fried and coated in a spicy, sweet, citrusy sauce.
Sweet and sour chicken
Fried chicken coated in a combination of sweet elements (ketchup, plum sauce) and sour elements (lemon, chili sauce).
Crispy chicken coated in a thick, sticky-sweet sauce comprising sesame seeds, honey, brown sugar, and other Chinese cooking staples.
Why We Love Orange Chicken Day
It’s a food holiday
We really need not say more, because food is always a cause for celebration. In fact, we’d go so far as to say that food is also a key element of any celebration.
National Orange Chicken Day is an opportunity to celebrate Chinese immigrant culture and how it developed and melded with American culture to bring us such unique and inspired dishes, enjoyed all over the world. It’s a chance to appreciate the struggles of a people group, as well as the traditions and culture of their roots.
Linked to a cause
Orange chicken is the specialty of fast-food chains like Panda Express, and the great thing is that many of these chains support important causes. Our example is Panda Express, which encourages not just customers, but internal associates as well, to give generously and donate to any Children’s Miracle Network Hospital in its locality. Maybe this is what gives their chicken that extra oomph factor!
Orange Chicken Day dates