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Is bourbon chicken Japanese or Chinese?

Bourbon chicken is a popular chicken dish commonly found in North American Chinese restaurants. It consists of chunks of chicken that are coated in a sweet sauce containing bourbon whiskey, soy sauce, brown sugar, garlic, ginger, and other ingredients. While bourbon chicken is now a menu staple at many Chinese restaurants, its origins are somewhat ambiguous. So is bourbon chicken actually a Japanese or Chinese dish?

Origin Theories

There are a few different theories regarding the origins of bourbon chicken:

Japanese Invention

One claim is that bourbon chicken was invented in Japan. According to this theory, bourbon chicken was created by Japanese chefs who were experimenting with incorporating Western flavors and ingredients into traditional Japanese cooking.

Bourbon whiskey was a popular spirit in postwar Japan, so chefs began using it to create new sauce recipes. By adding bourbon, soy sauce, brown sugar, and other flavorings to chicken, they developed what became known as “bourbon chicken.”

The dish was supposedly brought over to North America by Japanese chefs and then adopted by Chinese restaurants, which helped popularize it. So according to this version of events, bourbon chicken originated as a Japanese fusion cuisine dish.

Chinese Invention

However, many believe that bourbon chicken was actually invented in North America by Chinese immigrants. According to this theory, Chinese chefs and restaurant owners were looking for new dishes that would appeal to Western tastes.

Bourbon was also gaining popularity in North America during the 1960s and 70s. So Chinese chefs started experimenting with adding bourbon and other Western ingredients to traditional Chinese chicken recipes. Over time, this resulted in the creation of the bourbon chicken dish that is so well-known today.

The incorporation of Western ingredients like bourbon whiskey and brown sugar helped make the dish more appealing to North American palates. So while the dish uses Chinese cooking techniques, it was likely invented on this side of the Pacific.

Multiple Origins

There’s also a theory that bourbon chicken was invented concurrently in both Japan and North America, completely independent of each other. According to this view, chefs in both regions came up with the idea of adding bourbon whiskey to chicken around the same time.

It’s entirely possible that multiple chefs in different parts of the world could have had the same inspiration without being aware of each other. The global popularity of bourbon in the mid-20th century could have led to this dish being created in different regions simultaneously.

So while the exact origins are unclear, it seems plausible that bourbon chicken was invented independently on separate continents by both Japanese and Chinese chefs.

Key Differences Between Japanese & Chinese Cuisine

To better understand whether bourbon chicken is more Japanese or Chinese in nature, it helps to examine some of the major differences between the two cuisines:

Flavors & Seasonings

– Japanese cuisine relies heavily on umami flavors like soy sauce, miso, bonito flakes, and seaweed. Chinese cuisine uses more spices like garlic, ginger, Sichuan peppercorns, and chilies.

– Japanese cooking uses subtle seasoning so natural flavors shine. Chinese dishes have bolder, complex seasoning.

– Japanese cooking utilizes ingredients like rice vinegar, mirin, and sake for flavor. Chinese cooking uses rice wine, sesame oil, oyster sauce, and hoisin.

Cooking Techniques

– Chinese cooking often involves stir-frying, pan-frying, deep-frying, braising, and stewing techniques. Japanese cooking focuses more on grilling, steaming, simmering, and using raw ingredients.

– Chinese dishes rely on woks for quick, high-heat stir-frying. Japanese cooking doesn’t use woks as much.

– Deep-frying is common in Chinese cuisine. Japanese cuisine doesn’t deep-fry ingredients as extensively.


– Chinese cuisine uses a wide diversity of vegetables, meats, spices, herbs and sauces. Japanese cuisine centers around seafood, dashi stock, seasonal ingredients, and rice.

– Tofu is a staple of Japanese cooking. It’s used less frequently in Chinese cooking.

– Chinese cooking incorporates ingredients like black beans, chili bean sauce, hoisin sauce, five spice powder, Sichuan peppercorns, etc. These seasonings are not common in Japanese cooking.

Comparison to Bourbon Chicken

When comparing the typical preparation and flavor profile of bourbon chicken to traditional Japanese and Chinese cuisine, it seems to align a bit more closely with Chinese techniques and ingredients:

Cooking Method

– Bourbon chicken is usually prepared by stir-frying or deep-frying chicken chunks, which are quintessential Chinese cooking techniques not frequently used in Japanese cuisine.

Flavor Profile

– The use of strong seasoning like garlic, ginger, soy sauce, and brown sugar gives bourbon chicken the complex, bold flavor common in Chinese cooking rather than the subtle flavors prized in Japanese cooking.

– Bourbon whiskey is incorporated as a flavoring. Rice wines like sake and mirin are more typical of Japanese cuisine.

Sauce ingredients

– Bourbon chicken sauce includes onion, garlic, soy sauce, brown sugar, ketchup, honey, and veggie oil/sesame oil. This combination of ingredients and flavor profile aligns with many Chinese stir-fry sauces.

– The sauce does not contain ingredients like miso, dashi, mirin, or bonito that would be more characteristic of Japanese cooking.

Use of chili peppers

– Some bourbon chicken recipes incorporate dried chilies to add heat and spice. This is much more common in Sichuan and other Chinese regional cuisines. Japanese cooking seldom relies on hot chilies for spiciness.

So while the use of bourbon whiskey adds an ingredient more associated with the West, the overall preparation, flavor, and ingredients used in bourbon chicken hew closer to Chinese cuisine than Japanese. This lends support to the theory that it was invented by Chinese rather than Japanese chefs.

Evidence Supporting Chinese Origin Theory

In addition to the cuisine analysis, there are some other facts that point towards bourbon chicken being invented by Chinese immigrants in North America:

Earliest Recipes

The earliest published recipes for bourbon chicken appear in North American Chinese cookbooks starting in the 1970s and 80s. If the dish originated in Japan, it likely would have appeared in Japanese cookbooks first.

Restaurant Menus

Bourbon chicken appears on the menus of many North American Chinese restaurants by the 1980s. There’s no evidence of it being served in Japanese restaurants in Japan during the same time period.

Chinese Community Familiarity

Chinese chefs and recipes developers in the US and Canada were very familiar with bourbon chicken by the 1990s. But the dish does not seem to have taken hold in Japan itself.

Name in English Not Japanese

The dish is known as “bourbon chicken” in English, not a Japanese name. If invented in Japan, it likely would have had a Japenese name first.

Fusion Cuisine Trend

Chinese restaurants in North America were pioneering fusion cuisine blending Western and Chinese flavors starting in the 1950s/60s. Bourbon chicken fits into this broader fusion cuisine movement.

So while the exact inventor may never be known, the balance of evidence points to bourbon chicken being invented by Chinese chefs and restaurateurs in North America, not Japan.

Reasons for Popularity in North America

While the origins may be debatable, there’s no doubt bourbon chicken has become extremely popular on Chinese restaurant menus in the United States and Canada. Here are some likely reasons why it became so ubiquitous:

Appealing Flavor Profile

The mixture of sweet bourbon sauce, savory soy, and tender chicken is widely enjoyed by North American diners. The blend of Chinese and Western flavors in one dish gives it cross-cultural appeal.

Texture Variety

The combination of crispy fried exterior with a moist, juicy interior provides appealing textural contrast.

Inexpensive Ingredients

Chicken and common pantry ingredients like soy sauce, sugar, oil and garlic keep ingredient costs low. This made it economical for restaurants to offer it affordably.

Easy to Prepare

Bourbon chicken can be made in large batches quickly in a wok or deep fryer. It doesn’t require extensive culinary skills, just basic stir-frying technique. This simplicity helped it become a menu staple.

Pairing With Rice

Bourbon chicken goes extremely well with steamed white rice, a food already familiar and well-liked by North Americans. This made the dish feel like a hearty, satisfying meal.

Kid-Friendly Option

The mild sweetness from the brown sugar appeals to many children’s palates. Offering it enabled Chinese restaurants to cater to families.

So for restaurateurs, making bourbon chicken enabled them to please customers’ tastes, keep costs low, and appeal to a wide demographic. These factors helped drive its popularity from restaurant staple to a freezer aisle mainstay.

Global Proliferation

While invented in North America, bourbon chicken has now spread around the world. It can be found on Chinese restaurant menus in the United Kingdom, Australia, Latin America, and even mainland China itself.

Some reasons why the dish became so globally pervasive:

Chinese Diaspora

As Chinese immigrants brought their culinary traditions to new regions, bourbon chicken was added right alongside long-standing favorites like kung pao chicken and general tso’s chicken.

Cross-Cultural Appeal

Just as it appealed to North American palates, bourbon chicken’s blend of Chinese and Western flavors made it equally appetizing in other ethnic markets.

Familiarity Through Media

North American TV shows, movies, and travel shows that featured Chinese food often included shots of bourbon chicken. This media exposure led to recognition overseas.

Versatile Ingredients

The core ingredients like soy sauce, garlic, oil, sugar and whiskey are kitchen staples around the world. This made reproducing bourbon chicken easy globally.

Easy Recipe to Follow

With a relatively simple preparation method, cooks of varying skill levels could recreate the dish using widely-available ingredients.

So while it may have originated in North America, bourbon chicken’s appeal has lead home cooks and restaurants around the world to embrace it as their own. It joins the list of globally-enjoyed Chinese-American dishes alongside orange chicken and fortune cookies.


While the exact geographical origin of bourbon chicken is clouded in some mystery, evidence points strongly to it being invented by Chinese immigrant chefs and restaurateurs working in North America during the mid 20th century. Its preparation and flavor profile more closely resemble Chinese cuisine versus Japanese.

References to bourbon chicken first appeared in North American Chinese cookbooks and restaurant menus, not Japanese ones. And Chinese chefs have the longest history and greatest familiarity with the dish.

Regardless of where it was first invented, bourbon chicken has become a menu staple at North American Chinese establishments. Its family-friendly flavor, crispy-fried chicken, and use of familiar ingredients made it the perfect storm of popularity. This fuelled its proliferation across the United States, Canada, and eventually worldwide.

So while its roots may have cross-cultural influences, bourbon chicken is arguably more Chinese than Japanese in style and origins. But wherever you encounter it around the world, it remains a beloved staple that fusion cuisine helped bring to the global stage.