Trader Joe's Vegan Mandarin Chicken Is A Sugary Disaster You Can Make Better From Scratch

As a long-time vegan, Trader Joe's has become a reliable stop when stocking up on my ready-made go-to's. Without items like Japanese Style Fried Rice and Vegetable Samosa Burritos, I sometimes wonder if I'd have time to eat at all. So, when I saw that the brand had veganized its infamous Mandarin orange chicken, I couldn't wait to add it to my rotation. The original version has topped the brand's Customer Choice Awards year after year and was one of the first five items inducted into its Product Hall of Fame, so there was a lot of hype surrounding the release of the plant-based version (and I happily joined in). 

I went into the store with high expectations, and in the end, I was left disappointed. Instead of the juicy, crispy, and citrusy satisfaction we all know and love, the chicken-less version was overly sweet, awkwardly shaped, and lacked the complexity of flavor of its predecessor.

A sweetness overload

Orange chicken is nothing without its signature sauce — it's the one thing that differentiates it from your average chicken nugget. At first glance, when comparing the ingredient lists of the sauces of Trader Joe's original frozen orange chicken and the vegan version, not much seems to have changed, with sugar as the leading ingredient in both. But, with a second look at the nutrition labels, it's clear that in order to make up for the lack of chicken in this item, Trader Joe's amped up the sauce's sweetness ... a lot. 

The chicken-less morsels contain 15 grams of added sugar (compared to the original's six), and you can tell. The sweetness of the chicken-less version overpowers any other flavors. No savoriness from the garlic or soy sauce, no spice from the ginger or red pepper, and none of the citrusy orange flavor that orange chicken is famous for — all of that is hidden behind a big mouthful of sugar. 

Trader Joe's claims that a lot of "tinkering" had to be done to create a vegan version of one of the brand's most loved items. Again, while the effort is appreciated, TJ's should know it's the chicken that vegans have an issue with, not the sauce — which, according to the original's recipe, was vegan in the first place. 

Trader Joe's vegan mandarin chicken is not worth the effort

Thankfully, the sauce does come packaged separately from the frozen morsels. So you're free to use one from another brand or create your own sauce at home — however, that will only add to your prep time, which is already quite significant for a frozen meal. Trader Joe's chicken-less Mandarin morsels aren't a product you can throw in the microwave while you go about your day, or even in the oven like the original version. To achieve the right texture, the morsels must be fried in a pan for about 8 minutes until golden and crispy on both sides, requiring your constant attention so as not to burn them. 

The vegan version also requires a bit more effort to be made into a complete meal; it's intended to be served with noodles, rice, or greens. The original version is also often served with these accompaniments, but it can also be enjoyed on its own. Conversely, even when the vegan morsels are bulked up with rice or noodles, the unvarying shapes aren't exactly appetizing looking. While there's nothing you can do to make them look more like chicken, I've found that the addition of fresh herbs, sliced green onions, and a sprinkle of sesame seeds can help. But, again, that only adds to the prep work — which is why, in my opinion, you're better off making your own. 

Make vegan mandarin chicken yourself instead

Making a vegan version of Trader Joe's Mandarin Chicken from scratch doesn't require much more work than the store-bought kind, and the resulting dish is so much more satisfying. Using Tasting Table's Baked Orange Chicken Recipe as a guide, I start by pressing a block of firm tofu so it doesn't become a crumbled mess when fried. Pressing tofu is basically just squishing it under something heavy (like a cast iron skillet, cutting board, or cans) so it will release excess moisture. Then, I break the block into pieces with my hands to make rustic pieces that will fry up beautifully. For even more crunch, instead of just coating them with flour before frying or baking, I add a bit of cornstarch to the mix.

Once they come out of the oven or pan, I glaze them in the sauce. The aforementioned recipe calls for orange marmalade, but I like to add a splash of fresh orange juice and zest to the sauce as well to drive home the citrusy flavor. And if you're a spice fan, you can add more red pepper flakes than the TT recipe advises or even throw in some jalapeños or sriracha. In the end, you will have a sweet and savory meal that feels more substantial than the frozen version. This homemade vegan-friendly alternative is much more comparable to the real thing — without any unforeseen toothaches.