Saturday, September 15, 2012

When you crave Panda Express, make THIS instead...

Come dine with me
Panda Express opened up in the basement lounge of the Memorial Student Center at the start of this academic year. The line at dinnertime stretches across the food court as the students come hungry for the only nearby "Chinese" food. Whenever I go by the MSC, the thick aroma of Americanized Chinese food permeates the air, and I too am lured  by the smell and thought of orange chicken and tofu eggplant in brown sauce. But I resist...on principle, I'd like to say.

First off, being of Asian heritage, I like to act all high and mighty and call Panda Express as purely Americanized Chinese food, not real, and catered to the overly sugary, fatty, and processed American palate. But I cannot deny, I like the taste of it when it comes out fresh. It is delicious because it is so sugary and fatty. Panda Express really hit something with their sauces. And, really, I am such an Americanized Asian that I can't pull off the haughty Asian disdain.

Second, I resist because of the fact that Panda Express is really unhealthy for you. The favorite, orange chicken, is purely battered and fried meat, bathed in a sweet sweet sweet salty and tangy sauce. If 5.2 oz is about half a cup, one serving of orange chicken is 420 calories, 21 g of fat, 18 g sugar. Mmm, deep fried sweet chicken...

Being in College Station, away from home-cooked Vietnamese food, I crave Asian food a lot. And the smells that permeate the air around the MSC does not all. So I decided I needed to make it at home. Last week, I searched the internet for healthy orange chicken recipes, and came upon this recipe from Cordon Pink. Instead of chicken, I used tofu to make it even healthier and served it with steamed broccoli and carrots and cilantro brown rice. I also added sauteed onion and garlic and sesame seeds for extra flavor and nutritional boost. It is a very simple yet delicious recipe that quells that unhealthy cravings and I recommend you try it sometime to judge for yourself.

Asian Orange Tofu
1 block of extra-firm tofu (prep ahead of time, see directions!)
4 Tbs cornstarch
Salt and black pepper
(optional: celery salt)
1/3 cup 100% orange juice
1/2 cup rice wine vinegar or rice vinegar
1/2 cup organic granulated sugar
2.5 Tbs soy sauce
1 tsp key lime juice
1/2 Tbs sesame oil
2 tsp cornstarch
1/2 to 1 Tbs sambal oelek chili paste (to taste)
1/4 yellow onion, chopped
3-4 garlic cloves, chopped
sesame seeds (optional garnish)

1. Tofu prep: drain tofu. Slice into about 8 rectangles and place between paper towels to dry for 30 mins-1hour. Try to get nearly all the liquid out. Then slice into 1/2" cubes.
2. Combine cornstarch, salt, and black pepper in a big bowl, then toss tofu to coat. Heat a large skillet over medium. Add 1 Tbs oil and layer in tofu. Fry one side of tofu until nice and crisp (don't stir or bother much or you'll break up the tofu!). Flip each tofu block to other side and fry other side till crisp. Fry edges if you want too.
3. Dissolve 2 tsp cornstarch with orange juice. Add to tofu in pan, then add rest of sauce ingredients and cook over low till nice and thick and warm.
4. In another pan, saute yellow onion till soft, then add garlic and cook till brown. Mix in with tofu and sauce.

Cilantro Brown Rice
Combine 1 cup brown rice with 2 cups water. Bring to a boil, lower heat to simmer. Cover and let simmer 35-45 minutes until cooked. Fluff with fork. Chop up some cilantro and green onion and mix in. Add in some (key) lime juice if you want.

Eat up!
To serve:
Add 3/4 cup of rice to a bowl. Add some tofu, sprinkle on sesame seeds. Serve with steamed broccoli, carrots, or other vegetables.


  1. I used to love Panda Express! It makes me sick now. I'd much rather have your homemade version! Delish.

    1. Thanks! If you make it, let me know how you like it, any suggestions, and any add-ons you did.

  2. Good on you for recreating this dish at home! Homemade is always best as you can control the quality of the ingredients which you are using, but eating out once in a while is ok too :-) When I was living and working in Chicago, I used to see Panda Express everywhere and only tried it once or twice during lunch breaks. As you mention, it's Americanised Chinese food but the Orange Chicken is darn good! I have a soft spot for anything deep-fried, more so if it is accompanied by a sweet, sour and sticky sauce!

  3. You know... after all these years in America I still haven't tried Panda Express :-P
    I'd bet on your homemade version over Panda Express version any day. ;-)