Both General Tso’s chicken and orange chicken are beloved Chinese-American dishes that can often be found on takeout and buffet menus across the United States. However, there is an ongoing debate among spicy food aficionados about which dish packs more heat. While both dishes are fairly mildly spiced compared to authentic Sichuan cuisine, there are some notable differences in their level of spiciness.
What is General Tso’s Chicken?
General Tso’s chicken was invented by chef Peng Chang-kuei in Taiwan in the 1950s. The dish is named after Zuo Zongtang, a Qing dynasty statesman and military leader who helped suppress the Taiping Rebellion in the 19th century. General Tso’s chicken consists of deep-fried chicken that is tossed in a sweet, slightly spicy sauce made with soy sauce, rice vinegar, hoisin sauce, chili peppers, garlic, ginger, sugar, and cornstarch. The chicken is topped off with scallions before serving. While the exact recipe can vary between chefs, the hallmarks of General Tso’s chicken are a crispy fried exterior, a sweet and savory sauce, a hint of spice, and garnishes like sesame seeds and scallions.
In terms of spiciness, General Tso’s chicken brings a subtle kick of heat. Most recipes call for dried red chili peppers, which provide a mild spicy flavor. The sweetness of the sauce balances out the spiciness, making it an appealing dish to those who can’t tolerate very hot foods. The spiciness level can range from a gentle tingle on the tongue to moderately spicy depending on the quantity and type of chili peppers used. Many chefs use small amounts of chili flakes or powders like cayenne, resulting in a dish that is mildly spicy but not burning hot.
What is Orange Chicken?
Orange chicken is a Chinese-American dish that emerged in the late 20th century, likely inspired by General Tso’s chicken. It consists of chicken pieces that are battered, fried, and coated in a thick, sweet orange sauce. The origins of the dish are unclear, but it became hugely popular after being served at Panda Express beginning in 1987. The hallmark flavors of orange chicken are the tangy, sweet orange sauce, crispy fried chicken, and often a garnish of sliced scallions. Recipes can include orange juice, orange zest, rice vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, ginger, sesame oil, corn starch, and chili paste or crushed red pepper flakes.
In terms of spiciness, orange chicken is very mild. The primary flavors come from the sweet orange sauce made with orange juice concentrate, rice vinegar, soy sauce, and spices. Most recipes call for just a pinch or small spoonful of crushed red pepper flakes, which adds subtle heat without making the dish spicy. The sweetness of the orange sauce also balances out any spiciness from the red pepper flakes. While the amount of crushed red pepper can be adjusted to preference, orange chicken is designed to be a crowd-pleasing dish that appeals to the masses, so it trends toward the milder side in terms of spice level.
When comparing the spiciness of General Tso’s chicken versus orange chicken, General Tso’s chicken clearly brings more heat. Here’s a breakdown of their spice levels:
General Tso’s Chicken
- Relies on dried chili peppers for spice.
- Chili peppers provide mild to moderate spiciness.
- Sweetness balances out heat.
- Spiciness level ranges from gentle tingling to moderately spicy.
- Relies on small amounts of crushed red pepper flakes for subtle spice.
- Very mildly spicy due to tiny amounts of crushed red pepper.
- Sweet orange sauce overwhelms any spice.
- Barely registers on the spice scale.
While both dishes are fairly mild, General Tso’s chicken has a noticeable spicy kick from the chili peppers used in the sauce. Orange chicken gets just the faintest hint of heat from the crushed red pepper flakes. For those who enjoy spicy foods, General Tso’s chicken would be the spicier and more flavorful choice. For mild palates, orange chicken’s ultra sweet and tangy sauce makes it the safer option.
Factors that Impact Spiciness
There are a few factors that can impact the spiciness levels of both General Tso’s chicken and orange chicken:
Type of Chili Peppers Used
General Tso’s chicken recipes can use various types of dried chili peppers ranging from milder varieties like arbol and japones to spicier chilis like santaka or chile de arbol. The spicier the chili peppers, the spicier the dish will taste.
Amount of Chili Peppers Used
In General Tso’s chicken, the amount of dried chili peppers called for directly impacts the spice level. More peppers equals more heat.
Amount of Crushed Red Pepper
In orange chicken, more crushed red pepper flakes will result in slightly elevated spice. But the impact is minor due to the cloying sweet orange sauce.
Individual Tolerance for Spice
Each individual’s tolerance for spicy foods is highly personal and subjective. The same dish may taste mildly spicy to one person and fiery hot to another. General Tso’s chicken and orange chicken are meant to have fairly universal appeal, but reactions to the spice levels will vary.
The spiciness can vary depending on who is preparing the dish. Some chefs may alter the amount of chili peppers or crushed red pepper to suit their tastes and desired spice level.
Other Factors Beyond Spiciness
While spiciness is a major point of difference between the two dishes, here are some other factors food lovers may want to consider:
General Tso’s chicken has a complex, savory sauce with ginger, garlic, soy sauce, vinegar, and sweetness. Orange chicken is dominated by sweet citrus flavors.
The sauce for General Tso’s chicken is glossy and lightly thickened. Orange chicken has an ultra thick, sticky sauce.
General Tso’s chicken uses bone-in chicken pieces with skin and breading. Orange chicken uses boneless, skinless chunks that are fried in a very thick batter.
General Tso’s comes from Taiwanese Chinese cuisine. Orange chicken is a Chinese-American dish invented in the U.S.
Both dishes are beloved staples on American-Chinese takeout and buffet menus. However, orange chicken has wider mainstream popularity today.
So which dish comes out on top in a spicy showdown? General Tso’s chicken clearly packs more heat and spice than the ultra-sweet orange chicken. Food lovers who enjoy spicy flavors will likely prefer General Tso’s, while those who steer away from heat will favor orange chicken. However, since both dishes are on the milder end of the spicy spectrum, both can be enjoyed regardless of one’s tolerance for spice. The real winner may come down to whether you want the complex, bold flavors of General Tso’s or the candy-like sweetness of orange chicken.