The Disputed Origins Of Bourbon Chicken

A staple of New Orleans and shopping mall food courts across the country, bourbon chicken is known for its tangy, sweet, and savory sauce that often incorporates that all-American of spirits: bourbon. It's also a popular meal to make at home, as evidenced by the many recipes that can be found online. Since it's a tasty dish that's fairly easy to find and prepare, its popularity is not entirely surprising. What's less clear, though, is where it came from.

Most stories claim that the dish originated on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, with some further stating that it was specifically a Chinese restaurant on Bourbon Street that first came up with the recipe, due, perhaps, to its many Chinese elements. And while bourbon isn't something that's typically used in Chinese cooking — Shaoxing wine is the standard go-to alcohol used in Chinese food — perhaps it makes sense if the intention was to create a fusion dish to appeal to a broader American audience. 

New Orleans also makes sense as a location for a fusion dish to develop. As America's Test Kitchen notes in "The Complete Cook's Country TV Show Cookbook, Season 16 Edition" in a sidebar to its bourbon chicken recipe, "New Orleans is known for its modernized takes on blended cuisines." Some recipes seem to support this theory, as they specifically refer to the dish as Bourbon Street chicken.

Was bourbon chicken named after a key ingredient?

Another theory for the origin of bourbon chicken is that it's so named because bourbon is a key ingredient used to make the dish. And while many recipes for bourbon chicken today call for bourbon, not all do, especially recipes aimed at families with kids and those with health, religious, or other concerns about consuming alcohol, however small an amount. It's also not clear that the original recipe (which is lost to the mists of time), contained bourbon, either. 

Whether or not the original recipe called for bourbon, there are certainly benefits to adding it, as the inclusion of alcohol yields more tender chicken. It also adds a complexity of flavors — depending on which bourbon you choose for your bourbon chicken — from sweet vanilla and caramel notes to spicier elements. 

Given the lack of verifiable information out there, we may never know the actual origins of bourbon chicken. Perhaps this confusion is fitting since it's similarly unclear whether bourbon's name came from Bourbon Street, Bourbon County, or the 18th-century French House of Bourbon. What is clear is that bourbon chicken is a delicious and popular — and distinctly American — Cajun and Chinese fusion dish, whatever its true origins.