Crispy orange beef is a delicious dish with a surprising origin story.
Most people would guess that crispy orange beef started in China, but they would be incorrect. This recipe of perfectly blended sweet and salty flavors was specifically created to adhere to American preferences. It turns out Americans have a palette that prefers food that is sweeter than traditional Chinese food. And from this discovery, dishes like crispy orange beef and General Tsao’s chicken were born.
What Is Crispy Orange Beef?
Crispy orange beef is a dish of beef strips marinated and cooked in a sauce that is sweet, spicy and savory all at the same time. Orange juice and orange zest are typically used to achieve a sweet note in the dish. The orange flavors balance out the heat and the sodium from the spices and soy sauce in the recipe. Typically, crispy orange beef is served with a side of rice and broccoli.
The cousin of this dish, orange chicken, is considered to be the more popular dish. However, orange chicken calls for breading, making the crispy orange beef a lighter choice for most. Instead of a bread coating, crispy orange beef covers the beef strips in cornstarch which serves to thicken the sauce, tenderize the meat and result in crispy pieces of meat.
The History of Crispy Orange Beef
You’ve likely heard that a lot of the food at Chinese restaurants in Western countries aren’t representative of true Chinese cuisine. Instead, there’s become an entirely separate cuisine of food that falls under the category of Americanized Chinese food. For example, there was a documentary made in 2016 called ‘The Search for General Tsao.’ This documentary looked to explore the origin story of General Tsao’s Chicken which doesn’t have any roots in China.
While crispy orange beef may seem like it originated in China, it’s strictly an Americanized Chinese food cuisine. During the 1800s gold rush, many Chinese small business owners opened up Chinese restaurants to offer cuisine to other immigrants of their home country. However, over time, the restaurant owners began to realize they could appeal to much larger crowds. The food began to change, recipes became sweeter, used boneless meats, and more frying, to accommodate the tastes of Americans.
Crispy orange beef has been traced back to Chef T.T. Wang of a Chinese restaurant on Second Avenue in New York. The establishment was called Hunan Restaurant and is believed to be the first to offer crispy orange beef.
How to Make Crispy Orange Beef
Crispy orange beef isn’t too difficult to prepare and uses common ingredients that most people have in their kitchen.
- If you are using a whole piece of beef, cut the piece into thin strips.
- Toss the beef strips in soy sauce.
- Sprinkle the strips with an even layer of corn starch.
- Heat a pan over medium-high heat and cook the beef on each side. Set the cooked beef aside.
- Using your orange, prep some thin orange slices (use a vegetable peeler), some orange zest (use a microplane grater) and some freshly squeezed orange juice.
- Assemble your sauce of soy sauce, orange juice and rice vinegar.
- Cook the ginger, garlic and orange strips into the hot pan. Cook for 1-2 minutes.
- Add the beef back into the pan and pour the sauce mixture on top.
- Plate everything hot. Top with sesame seeds and orange zest. This recipe is commonly served with a side of white rice or broccoli.
Crispy Orange Beef Variations
For a more indulgent recipe, check out this version from All Recipes that calls for the beef strips to be deliciously deep-fried.
The recipe from Fifteen Spatulas recommends freezing the beef for 30 minutes to dry out the beef, which enables it to crisp up better.
And this recipe from Num Nums calls for molasses and dry sherry to be added in the sauce for a more complex flavor profile.
This recipe may not be a traditional Chinese dish, but the ingredients still pay homage to Chinese culture. Crispy orange beef is relatively easy to make and will impress any house guest. It’s the perfect dish to serve to a large dinner party or to whip up as a dinner for two.