Soy Sauce Alternatives and Chinese Inspired Roasted Chicken

Chicken is one of my family’s favorite foods and they would eat it plain all day long. But I get sick of the same old. This is when I go to the pantry and hastily try to pull a few ingredients and mix them together before my 4 year old hungrily gnaws my arm off. I still maintain that roasted chicken tastes better, but I digress.

This chicken recipe is pretty flexible. The main ingredient in the sauce, however, deserves a discussion.

It’s all about that base.


Soy is extremely controversial. Unless you’ve already researched soy sauce in the United States, in which case your mind is pretty much already made up about the issue.

Soy sauce should be a traditional, healthy fermented food. Traditional foods are fantastic for our health. However, soy sauce production has been taken over by the food processing industry to create a high-sodium, high glutamic acid, highly processed product that is anything but healthy. Not to mention nearly all soy in this country is GMO. Dr. Kaayla Daniel has written a comprehensive, scary, and very comprehensive article about the concerns surrounding the soy sauce products most commonly found in the stores so I won’t rehash the issue. This article is definitely worth a few minutes of your time.

But if you’re short on time – the traditionally fermented brand of soy sauce you will want to be sure to use is Oshawa Organic, available on Amazon and Vitacost.

If you are gluten-free, take note: Soy sauce does contain gluten. If you are still leaning the soy sauce route, you want tamari, the gluten-free version of soy sauce. Not to worry. Oshawa Organic has you covered here too, courtesy of Amazon.

Many people choose to avoid soy altogether, which is honestly not a bad idea given how hard it is to find organic, traditionally fermented soy sauce at the last minute. Coconut aminos have become incredibly popular lately, and there are several organic brands from which to choose. It is made by fermenting the sap of coconut trees and combining with salt. According to Coconut Secrets, even with added salt coconut aminos still contain 70% less sodium than soy sauce. Coconut aminos tout a broad range of amino acids (the building blocks of protein) in every teaspoon of the product. However, the amounts of aminos are incredibly negligible and you’d get better nutrition from a cup of bone broth. That one criticism aside, I enjoy using coconut aminos as a soy/tamari substitute, and I’ve even been known to brown bag a bottle into sushi restaurants.

Bragg’s aminos has been billed as another soy sauce replacement, however, I feel this product is simply an over processed alternative, that also can have added corn syrup and caramel coloring.

Now, onto the chicken

I’ve chosen to make this recipe with two chicken legs, bone-in, skin on; however, here’s how to modify it. If you want to roast an entire chicken, double the sauce, add 1/2 C water or chicken broth, use 2 onions, and roast covered for the first 20 minutes. Cutting up the chicken into 8 pieces will speed up the cooking time. You can also use bone-in, skin on breasts. (The bone makes for moister, more flavorful chicken but also lengthens cooking time).

I’ve really come to enjoy roasting chicken over a bed of onions, but you certainly don’t need to. The onions release moisture and become sweet while keeping the chicken from drying out too much. I sautéed them before putting the chicken in the oven to release even more juices, since the roasting time isn’t that long.

Chinese 5 spice blend is used to add background notes to the sauce. This traditional Chinese seasoning blend is made of a balance of flavors: salty, sweet, spicy, sour, and bitter. It’s comprised of cloves, fennel seeds, star anise, cinnamon, and Szechuan peppercorns.

If you don’t have orange or Meyer lemon juice on hand, you could also try using pomegranate or tart cherry juice instead. Or eliminate the juice totally: add a little extra water and a little extra honey to taste. You’re going for a sweet-salty balance with the warming Chinese 5 spice blend in the background.

Thin sauces don’t stick well to meat. I thicken my sauce with arrowroot powder but you could also use cornstarch. The key is mixing the arrowroot with a little room temperature liquid first, and then adding it to the main sauce. I usually use water or a little more coconut aminos for this purpose. The sauce will thicken up and loose the white tint once the liquid gets hot. I like to do this in a sauce pan just before serving so I get a sense of how thick the sauce already is after cooking down and chicken juices are released into it.

This chicken dish pairs well with sides of sautéed or stir fried veggies and brown rice.

Chinese Inspired Roasted Chicken
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 15 minutes or more 
Yield: 2 servings

2 Tbsp sesame or peanut oil
2 chicken legs, bone-in, skin on, brought to room temperature
1 medium onion, sliced into strips
2 cups shredded red cabbage
2 Tbsp organic soy sauce OR tamari OR coconut aminos
3 Tbsp orange or Meyer lemon juice
.5 tsp Chinese 5-spice powder
1-2 tsp honey, to taste
.5 tsp salt (optional; when using coconut aminos instead of tamari)
1 tbsp arrowroot powder or cornstarch (optional)
2 tbsp cold water or extra coconut aminos (optional)
1 scallion, sliced horizontally

1. Preheat oven to 375°F.
2. In a large oven-safe skillet over medium-low heat, add the oil to warm it up. It should easily coat the pan but not be smoking. Place the chicken legs skin side down and allow to brown. Flip and brown on the other side, then remove to a plate.
3. Saute onion slices and shredded cabbage until soft, stirring occasionally, about 15 minutes. Reserve on serving plate.
4. Meanwhile, in a glass measuring cup, mix the soy/tamari/coconut aminos, juice, 5-spice powder, honey, and salt (optional). Taste and adjust to balance out the flavors.
5. Place the chicken pieces skin-side up back in the skillet, pour sauce over chicken, and place in the oven to roast until the internal temperature temperature reaches 165°F. If the chicken starts to brown too fast, turn down the oven to 350 and tent with foil.
6. Remove chicken and onions to serving plate. Sprinkle with scallions.
7. Optional: If you want a thicker sauce to serve on the side, mix the arrowroot and room temperature coconut aminos or water well in a small bowl. Pour the remaining chicken gravy/sauce into a small sauce pan on low heat. Whisk the arrowroot mixture into the sauce and cook until the sauce thickens, several minutes.

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