One of the best things about ordering Chinese takeout is getting to choose from a long list of sweet and savory options. It means there's something for everyone to enjoy, whether they like tofu, egg foo young, or sweet and sour. But there are three common Chinese menu options that everyone seems to mix up.
What's the difference between sesame chicken, General Tso's chicken, and orange chicken? While each of these dishes is similar, they each have their own distinct qualities. For example, the main difference between General Tso's chicken and orange chicken is that General Tso's chicken has a lighter, crispier batter, while orange chicken uses citrus. In comparison, sesame chicken uses sesame seeds to add texture and flavor.
However, this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to these three classic Chinese-American dishes. Learn more about what makes each one unique below.
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What is Sesame Chicken?
Sesame chicken may be one of the most popular Chinese-American dishes to order for takeout, but the dish actually has its roots in the Chinese province of Guangdong. It is thought to have been conceived in the 1980s, using both sesame oil and sesame seeds to give it a rich, nutty flavor.
Today, it is mostly eaten in the United States and Europe, where it appears commonly on takeout menus. While sesame chicken isn't commonly eaten in China today, it still retains a touch of its home country in its recipe.
Taste and Texture
The important thing to understand about sesame chicken is that it has more in common with orange chicken and General Tso's chicken than it has differences. All three of them are deep-fried and coated in a sweet and tangy sauce. Chances are, if you're a fan of one of them, you're a fan of all of them.
That being said, there are a few things that set sesame chicken apart in terms of taste and texture. First, the sesame seeds and sesame oil give it a mild, nutty taste. This pairs well with the overall sweetness and is a perfect choice for those who prefer more mild flavors. Of the three, it is the least spicy.
When it comes to texture, sesame chicken is the same as orange chicken. Both use an egg-based batter, which gives them a somewhat chewier texture. Also, the sesame seeds add a slight crunch that the other two lack.
However, it's important to remember that these recipes can vary from restaurant to restaurant.
Sesame chicken probably has the most distinctive appearance among the three classic Chinese-American chicken dishes. It is covered in white sesame seeds, which contrast against the crispy fried exterior.
Other than that, it is similar in color to the other dishes. The sauce is light brown, which comes from the soy sauce and brown sugar used in it. In many cases, the dishes also include broccoli, which also contrasts the color of the batter and gives the dish a fresher look.
All three of these chicken dishes use a similar basic recipe, which is then altered depending on which of the three the customer orders. The base recipe uses chicken thighs coated in a batter of cornstarch and eggs and then fried. The base sauce includes rice vinegar, soy sauce, sesame oil, and brown sugar.
Sesame chicken is the most simple variation of the three, adding just sesame seeds to the recipe.
Overall, sesame chicken is best enjoyed as an occasional treat, as it doesn't offer much in the way of nutrition. It is high in fat, sodium, cholesterol, and sugar and will likely lead to weight gain if eaten regularly.
However, it does offer a moderate dose of vitamin B6, calcium, potassium, iron, and magnesium. Most of these nutrients come from the chicken itself rather than the batter or the sauce.
What other nutrients does chicken have? Learn more about this bird's nutritional value here.
What is General Tso's Chicken?
You might be surprised to learn that General Tso's chicken actually has a longer history than its cousin, sesame chicken. It is said to have been created by chef Peng Chang-Kuei in Taiwan nearly 70 years ago, in 1955. Its original-sounding name came from a real general in the Qing dynasty.
Like sesame chicken and orange chicken, General Tso's chicken is mostly eaten in the western world today. It is enjoyed by those who prefer a slightly spicier flavor and a bit of extra crunch.
Taste and Texture
Of these three Chinese-American recipes, General Tso's chicken has a spicier flavor, incorporating a higher portion of red chiles in its recipe. Some might also say that its sauce is the most complex, with richer umami notes and a greater variety of aromatic flavors. While still quite sweet, it is the most similar to American barbecue sauce of the three.
The other major difference you'll notice when eating General Tso's chicken is the texture. The batter is lighter, crispier, and crunchier, giving it a unique textural profile.
If you were to look at each of these fried chicken dishes side-by-side, General Tso's would stand out for its dark color and slightly thicker sauce. While the exact color of the sauce will vary from restaurant to restaurant, the addition of soy sauce and hoisin will give General Tso's a less orange and more dark brown color.
You can also distinguish General Tso's chicken by its lack of sesame seeds and bright orange coloring. While it doesn't have any visible ingredients like the other two, it still has a unique appearance.
General Tso's chicken has the longest list of ingredients of these three chicken recipes. In addition to the basic sauce of rice vinegar, soy, sesame oil, and brown sugar, it also includes chicken broth, chili peppers, fresh ginger, garlic, and hoisin. This gives it a much more complex flavor and deeper color compared to the other two.
The other main difference is the batter. Unlike orange chicken and sesame chicken, General Tso's chicken doesn't use an egg-based batter. This gives it a lighter, crispier flavor, which is enhanced when it is fried twice.
Like the other two dishes, General Tso's chicken is not the most healthy dinner option and should be enjoyed in moderation. It is high in sodium, fat, cholesterol, and sugar. It has many of the same ingredients, plus a few more because of the added ingredients in the sauce. In addition to the nutrients listed in sesame chicken, General Tso's has a bit of extra vitamin D and iron.
What is Orange Chicken?
Of these three classic Chinese takeout dishes, orange chicken may be the most well-loved and the most famous. Known for its bright orange color and tangy flavor, it's no secret why it finds its place on menus across the world.
Originally, it was known as "Tangerine Chicken" and is believed to have originated in Hunan, China. However, since the dish is so widespread, it is difficult to say exactly who invented it.
Taste and Texture
The most distinctive thing about orange chicken's flavor is its tangy citrus taste. When done right, you should be able to taste the orange flavor clearly, which will go well with the sweetness of the sauce and the umami taste of the chicken. Orange chicken may or may not include spice, though if it does, it is usually mild.
In terms of texture, you can expect it to be virtually identical to sesame chicken. It uses an egg-based batter, so each bite is equally chewy and crispy. Like the other two, it always uses boneless chicken, so it's easy to eat with chopsticks.
Orange chicken might be a bit more difficult to identify at first glance since it doesn't have the white seeds of sesame chicken or the dark color of General Tso's. While orange chicken has an orange color, it's similar to a number of other Chinese-American recipes. One surefire way you know you're eating orange chicken is if there are whole slices of the fruit on top, as it is often used as a garnish.
Orange chicken uses the same basic recipe as the other two, with rice vinegar, soy sauce, and sugar to make its base flavor. To this, it adds garlic, ginger, orange juice, and orange zest. While the addition to the orange juice may sound like a simple change, it has a dramatic impact on the recipe's overall flavor.
Like sesame chicken, orange chicken uses an egg-based batter. This gives it a denser, chewier flavor to contrast the crunchiness.
If you're looking for an orange juice substitute to use in your orange chicken, check out our complete guide.
Just like the other two dishes, orange chicken is definitely a treat. With high levels of fat, sugar, and calories, it should be enjoyed sparingly. It has most of the same nutrients as sesame chicken, including iron and calcium. However, if you're expecting the addition of citrus to provide a good dose of vitamin C, you'd be wrong. Orange chicken only has about 4% of your daily value of vitamin C per serving.
Sesame Chicken vs. General Tso's Chicken
Of these three Chinese-American chicken dishes, sesame chicken and General Tso's chicken are probably the most different. Sesame chicken is sweet and mild with a slight umami base. It doesn't have any spice at all, relying instead on the nuttiness added by the sesame seeds to add complexity of flavor.
General Tso's, on the other hand, has a more deep, rich flavor that comes from the addition of hoisin sauce. It has a medium level of spice and uses broth rather than sesame seeds to get its umami flavor.
When it comes to texture, sesame chicken is denser and chewier, owing to the egg-based batter it's coated in. General Tso's chicken, by contrast, is lighter and crispier because its batter does not contain eggs.
Orange Chicken vs. General Tso's Chicken
Orange chicken and General Tso's chicken are overall very similar dishes, consisting of the same basic recipe with a few small changes. Both of them use boneless chicken thighs, deep-fried and covered in a sauce made of rice vinegar, soy sauce, brown sugar, garlic, and ginger.
The main difference between the two is the sauce. The sauce for orange chicken also has orange juice in addition to the above ingredients. General Tso's chicken includes hoisin sauce, chili, and chicken broth. This gives the orange chicken more of a tangy taste, while General Tso's has a flavor that's spicier and richer.
The other key difference is that general Tso's is a bit lighter and crunchier, whereas orange chicken is denser and chewier. This is because orange chicken uses an egg-based batter and the other does not.
Sesame Chicken vs. Orange Chicken
Sesame chicken and orange chicken are probably the most similar of the three dishes, each using the same basic recipe but adding only a few ingredients. Orange chicken adds orange juice to the recipe, whereas sesame chicken adds sesame seeds and sesame oil.
While the change might seem simple at first, it has a big impact on the overall flavor. Sesame chicken has a nutty, umami flavor, while orange chicken is much more tangy and fruity. Texturally, they are almost identical, however, as they both use a denser, egg-based batter.
All three dishes have their origins in Chinese cuisine. However, they are not commonly eaten in China today. They taste much sweeter than traditional Chinese food and are rightly called Chinese-American dishes.
Ideally, orange chicken should be nice and crispy. However, if left to sit too long before serving, the sauce will sink into the fried crust and make it soggy. To remedy this, try to get to your orange chicken as fast as possible before the sauce can do its work.