plate of orange chicken

Photos courtesy of Michael Bush

The Joys of Orange Chicken

| published January 24, 2016 |

By Michael Bush, Thursday Review contributor

I’ve mentioned in some of my previous articles that being an expatriate living abroad can make you homesick quite often. It’s true. China is home to some of the best food in the world, having eight unique styles of cuisine that vary as much in flavors and ingredients as a plate of from the Mediterranean differs from French cooking. There is so much to eat in China. And yet, despite all that it has to offer, I embarrassingly admit that the one thing I craved the most—the one style of food I longed for more than any other during my four years in China…was American Chinese food.

Yep, you heard me right. In the land of the real deal, what I actually wanted more than xiaolongbao, jidan bing, mapo doufu, and even the glorious shao kao…was a dang plate of orange chicken.

It wasn’t even like a distance makes the heart grow fonder kind of thing, either. It wasn’t the long absence of the dish over the course of years that made my hunger for orange chicken rise to such ravenous heights. I’m talking about day one in China I was like, “I could eat some orange chicken.” To understand this, you have to be in China and see the food in person. You have to smell the street vendors making their specialties. You have to taste the incredible flavors that, truthfully, blow orange chicken out of the proverbial water. And yet still, I wanted to eat the gloppy goopy chicken from ‘Murica.

Now, I’m an adventurous eater, as has been well documented here at Thursday Review. I’ll try just about anything. I love to explore regional cuisine, and in doing so have eaten some vile and disgusting things (just look back at my article “Bugging Out” to verify my credibility on gross foods). The giant Indonesian sea snails rank up there in that category. I’m not afraid to get my guts dirty, you see. So don’t think that I only want food from back home all the time. That is certainly not the case. I mean, sure, sometimes when you go to the store and see a stack of dried pig faces staring back at you, the only cure for that particular kind of culture shock is a homebrewed jug of sweet tea and some two-day slow-cooked boiled peanuts.

sweet tea and boiled peanuts

You see, I think my obsession with orange chicken is a kind of spiritual bond. Me and that dish go way back, and it’s a part of my history. For a long time, while living in San Diego, I ate it every day for lunch at this cool little place called China Fun. That is still the best orange chicken I’ve ever had. At one point, I envisioned myself as the host of a TV show where I traveled the world and tried different versions of orange chicken and then showed them how to make it the RIGHT way. Of course, to do that, I would need to learn how to freakin’ cook it myself.

So, while living in Shanghai, I started researching orange chicken. I wanted to know all the ingredients, and how to make it just right. I even looked at the history of the dish, and found there is an authentic version! Chen pi ji is an old recipe that uses dried orange peels and chili peppers to season the chicken. It’s spicy and bitter, but not very sweet. There are more modern versions out there now, which are a mix of the old and new, but the traditional one is a different animal. Trust me, I had an old Chinese woman cook it specifically for me at a restaurant once. It wasn’t a menu item, but after I had asked about it, the elderly woman said she knew how to cook the recipe. It was delicious, but sadly, the chen pi ji did not satiate my longing for the good ol’ American orange chicken.

So to fix my tragic situation, I decided to take a cooking class directed at foreigners. On the docket for instruction? Lemon chicken. I knew that I could substitute the lemony ingredients for orangey stuff when I did it at home. I felt this class was a way to get my orange chicken fix on demand. If no one sold it, I would have to go DIY on that stuff. The class was actually a lot of fun; my wife and I cooked together alongside a few friends. Our dishes all turned out quite well, and more importantly, I had the tools to create a masterpiece back in my own kitchen. And this skill served me well for a couple of years. Whenever the call took over, and I became a giant orange chicken monster in torn purple shorts, I just cooked the sticky, messy, wonderful dish myself. It was good enough...until the day Fortune Cookie opened their magical doors. I never cooked orange chicken again after that day.
Fortune Cookie sign

Fortune cookies are synonymous with American Chinese food and, as such, most Chinese people have never seen one. Hell, they were most likely invented in San Francisco. Knowing that, the name of the restaurant alone clued me in that I was in for something truly American. When I sat down for the first of what would be dozens of visits, the menu made me so happy that I visibly shook with anticipation.


Hot and sour soup. Not the traditional kind that can be found in many restaurants in China, with congealed duck blood floating in the broth like noodles made of jelly. I’m talking about the kind you find at Manchu Wok in the mall food court.

Egg rolls with duck sauce. Yes, this place made their own duck sauce because you can’t find that magical concoction on the shelves of Chinese grocery stores. And not authentic Chinese egg rolls, either; the kind found being cooked on the streets of China, which taste like ice cream cones. They are called egg rolls because the batter contains egg and they roll them into tubes while soft, so they harden and retain the shape for easy eating. The egg rolls at Fortune Cookie were the kind you find in a metal pan at Panda Express next to the red sauce.

Chow mein and fried rice, not chou mien and chou fan. Kung pao chicken, not gong bao jiding.

And orange chicken, not chen pi ji.

Basically, this place did not AT ALL have authentic Chinese food. However, they did have authentic American Chinese food. And I loved it.

We went all the time. On Christmas Day one year, they had Pabst Blue Ribbon tall boys on sale for 50 cents US per can. I truly wondered at that point if they were digging through my hopes and dreams to create their menu and specials. Fortune Cookie was on our Shanghai bucket list of things to do before leaving China, and was one of the last restaurants we ate at during our final week. That place was special.

Sadly, this past week I read that the owners shut their doors and moved back to America to pursue other challenges. While it breaks my heart to know they are gone, I am comforted by two things. First, they did not fail in their mission. They went out while doing great business, as this wasn’t a forced closure based on insufficient income. In fact, their presence in town spawned quite a few copycats (as things tend to go, especially in China). This means people can still get their American Chinese food fix in Shanghai. That’s important to me. Secondly, I feel that their departure from Shanghai coinciding within six months of my own is significant. That spiritual connection with orange chicken reveals itself once more. Was that restaurant placed there in that place and at that time…just for me?

Who’s to say? I choose to believe that maybe, just maybe, it was the ancestors of the Middle Kingdom looking out for a pretty decent laowai and making him feel a little more at home in their magical world.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Bugging Out: The Value of Trying Creepy Things to Eat; Michael Bush; Thursday Review; November 21, 2015.

Pockets of Heaven: The Best Stuff To East in China; Michael Bush ;Thursday Review; November 6, 2015.