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Bourbon Chicken

May 22, 2018

Is there a mall food court anywhere in America that you can walk through and not be accosted by samples of bourbon chicken? I mean, typically there are two cups. One has a piece of breaded and fried chicken in a sweet and sticky sauce. The other is naked and permeated with a sweet and salty flavor.

Part of me always thought of these dueling samples as the angel and devil on your shoulder.

The fried one says, “Oh yeah, you know you want me. I’m hot, crispy, and delicious.”
The other one counters with, “But you know better than to eat fried foods, choose me.”

I have no data to support this, but my hunch is that when presented with a healthier option, people still go for a plate of deep fried chicken more times than not. Surely, there is some intense physiology and psychology going on. I think I once read about a similar phenomenon at McDonalds. The mere presence of salads on the menus allows the visitor the freedom to choose fries and a shake with a cleaner conscience.

With that in mind, I never paid that much attention to the salty brown cube of chicken. But it’s called bourbon chicken. And just yesterday I happened to stumble onto a recipe to make it at home.

Dios mio.

Look, I’m going to put this out there right now. I have no actual idea what bourbon chicken is. I have no idea if this recipe is a faithful rendition of the dish. I do know that it has over 30,000 views on YouTube. Which I suppose isn’t a ton, but it’s more than a trifle.

The link above isn’t intended to mock or shame anyone. And I’m not going to yuck on someone else’s yum. I have no doubt that the recipe is delicious. I mean, it has to be. It’s salt, sugar, and chicken fat.

But it’s a lot of sugar.

It calls for a half cup of “teriyaki sauce” which if bought in a supermarket is likely sweetened with high fructose corn syrup. Then it uses another half cup of brown sugar. For good measure, two tablespoons of honey are also added.

The only other liquid in this recipe is a half cup of bourbon. And all of that is for just one pound of chicken.

I’m not above meat candy. There is actually a dish I make which is fairly similar to this. It’s my mom’s flank steak recipe. But since teriyaki sauce is typically soy sauce punched up with sake (or mirin), sugar, and ginger, I just put those flavors together on my own. Actually, my mom’s recipe riffs off this a bit and adds garlic while omitting the booze.

Still, if you want to make your own teriyaki sauce at home simply peel some ginger, put in some brown sugar, and add sake. Easy peasy. You can even have the freedom to use Shoyu or Tamari depending on what floats your boat. Although I’m sure traditionalists have one they prefer over the other.

Bourbon chicken would seem to be an Americanized take on that combination, replacing the Japanese alcohol for our domestic bourbon. In theory, I could imagine this being great.

Maybe I’m reacting to the jarred teriyaki sauce. Or perhaps it’s just the sheer quantity of sugar in this dish. Although it’s possible that my consternation flows from the assertion that Bourbon chicken is somehow a Chinese food.

Sure, I realize it’s sold at Chinese restaurants, but I’ve never stopped to wonder why. Nor did I fully understand the scope of this American phenomenon. It also never occurred to me that anyone would order this as part of their “Chinese takeout” experience.

Actually, the more I think about it, the more upset I get. Because even a Chinese interpretation of an Americanized Japanese food shouldn’t be stewed in a slow cooker. These ingredients demand to be grilled.

Not to mention the fact that grilling would take so much less time than the 2 hours this chicken simmers into a sticky mess in a crockpot.

Although maybe I’m missing the point entirely. Can anybody help me out here?

6 Comments leave one →
  1. May 22, 2018 11:32 am

    I’m doubling this morning’s insulin…your artistry in describing the viscosity and flavors of the sauce have done me in!

  2. Debra permalink
    May 22, 2018 3:39 pm

    The video above wasn’t for bourbon chicken, but this link is.

  3. Chad V. permalink
    May 29, 2018 9:49 am

    Every time I pass these places in the mall I’m sucked in. The bourbon chicken is the best thing on the menu (a low bar next to the flavorless fried rice, mushy lo mein and soft skinned egg rolls). It is clearly the best dish to be had in the food court (well over the sticky sweet orange chicken) and a crowd-pleaser that deserves its hallowed place in nominally Chinese/American fast cuisine. As an aside, I have no idea how they sell food this cheap and I’m never going to explore an answer because I’m sure I don’t want the answer.

    • May 29, 2018 11:11 am

      Chicken thighs are silly cheap in bulk. Cheap labor plus cheap ingredients equals cheap food.

      Most of the “soy sauce” at places like these is just salt water colored brown. But it’s the industrial cooking fats that personally bother me the most. For others it might be workers wages.

  4. Benjamin Maggi permalink
    May 31, 2018 1:55 pm

    My theory for the popularity of Bourbon Chicken is that it allows another non-Chinese (or non-Japanese) restaurant to set up in the food court. I bet the contracts only allow one Chinese restaurant per mall. But, lawyers can argue a Japanese restaurant or a Cajun restaurant isn’t a Chinese restaurant so they are okay to join in. In the end, all three serve the same two samples. Bourbon chicken may have been invented by Asian restaurants to allow them a back-door into a food court already having some other Asian place.

    At least that is my theory.

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