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Monday, January 11, 2010

Chinese Lemon Chicken, 1st Try

We’re looking for a Chinese Lemon Chicken recipe that can match the ones we’ve eaten at our favorite San Francisco Chinese restaurant.
Chinese Lemon Chicken
Whenever we go out to a Chinese restaurant to eat, almost always, my kids (including my BIG kid) will want to order Lemon Chicken. There’s just something about this dish that makes it so easy to eat—the tanginess of lemon, the sweetness of the sugar in the sauce and the crispy, fried chicken.
Now, I’ve eaten my share of Chinese lemon chicken. Some are really amazing and others just mediocre. The best one I ever had was at R & G Lounge in San Francisco. The lemon chicken there was amazing—the chicken was coated in an ethereally light batter and not greasy at all. And they served the really beautiful bright lemon sauce on the side so that the chicken wouldn’t get soggy. That was love on a plate! I don’t know how the lemon chicken is like these days there as I haven’t been in a long time but if it’s as good as that time when we had it (and who knows if my memory has elevated my experience), I would order it all the time!
On the other hand, the really bad restaurants would serve lemon chicken that was more batter than it was chicken. The chicken would be dried out and the batter would be thick and crusty. The sauce would hardly be called lemony, more like yellow coloring and LOTS of sugar which would also be gloppy in consistency. Now somewhere in between these two extremes are what you’d normally find in most restaurants.

Success on the first try?

So anyway, after having eaten this dish a lot outside (because I’ve never really wanted to attempt this at home—you know, deep frying and all), I finally decided I should learn how to make lemon chicken myself. Let me tell you, there are tons of recipes out there but I want my lemon chicken to be like the one at R & G Lounge—light, ethereal, bright and joyful! So after looking them all up, I decided to try a combination of recipes. I had an inkling it wouldn’t be as wonderful as the one I was looking for but I figured I had to start somewhere.
The result of my first attempt (and yes, there will be more until hopefully I get it right) at making lemon chicken was decent. The batter was what you would call “typical” of most lemon chickens in Chinese restaurants. The sauce was quite good and sufficiently lemony and not overly sweet and cloying. But it just didn’t have that “Anton Ego” moment for me.

Tell me about it

I will post the recipe as I thought it was a really good first attempt and the only thing I didn’t like was coating the chicken in custard powder before dipping into batter. Next time around, I might try dusting it with cornstarch or rice flour before dipping in batter. But I’m still contemplating how to get that light, crisp batter. I’m thinking maybe if I whipped up some egg whites and folded that into the batter? Anyway, if any of you out there know how to make a really nice light, crispy batter that sticks to the chicken, leave me a comment below!
The sauce calls for a lot of sugar and I chose to substitute half of it with Splenda. I would suggest that you add the sugar to taste. And don’t forget a pinch of salt as that helps to bring out the sweetness actually. Also, to thicken the sauce, if you cannot find instant custard powder, you can omit it and use cornstarch instead. What the custard powder did was to make the sauce thick and also a bit more yellow. It was an interesting idea but not absolutely necessary.
Try this recipe out and let me know what you think. My kids both could not wait for dinner when they heard I had made lemon chicken and they both liked it a lot (Daniel says he liked the sauce)! Guess that counts for something.

Chinese Lemon Chicken, 1st Try

500g boneless chicken (I used two very large thighs and legs—the neat thing is over here, the chicken seller will happily debone the chicken for you at no extra cost, the not so neat thing is the price of chicken is high to begin with)

1 tsp soy sauce
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp rice wine (optional)
1/2 tsp sesame oil
dash of white pepper

50g cornstarch
120g all-purpose flour
1 Tbsp rice flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
pinch of salt
1 egg, lightly beaten
225g water
cornstarch or rice flour for dusting chicken
Oil for deep frying

1/2 cup lemon juice (about 2 lemons worth)
1/2 cup water mixed with 1 tsp chicken bouillon
3-4 Tbsp sugar, to taste
pinch of salt
2-3 slices of lemon zest, and a few slices of lemon
1/2 tsp garlic powder (optional)
2 tsp custard powder or cornstarch mixed with 2 Tbsp water

Custard Powder

custard powder
1. Marinade chicken whole (if they are very large, cut them into more manageable pieces for frying) for 30 mins in the marinade.
2. Heat up oil in pot or wok until hot but not smoking (I use the chopstick test—put a wooden chopstick into the oil and if you see bubbles forming, the oil is hot enough).
3. Dust chicken with cornstarch or rice flour and then dip chicken in batter. Shake off excess batter (you don’t want a thick coat, just a nice even layer) then gently lay chicken in oil.

dipping chicken in batter
4. Fit as many pieces as you can without overcrowding. Fry until chicken is cooked through. Check by cutting into a piece to see if it’s done.
frying chicken 2
Finished pieces should be laid on a rack with paper towels under the rack to wick away the oil. Continue deep frying till all chicken pieces are done.
fried chicken
5. In a separate pot, put together all the ingredients for the sauce except the custard powder or cornstarch slurry. Heat pot until just barely boiling then simmer to incorporate all the ingredients for another 1-2 minutes. Taste and add more sugar or lemon juice if needed. Add custard/cornstarch slurry and heat up sauce to thicken slightly. Once the sauce has lost its floury flavor, it’s ready to be served.
6. Cut fried chicken into bite-sized pieces. Arrange artfully on a plate. Garnish with more lemon slices. Serve along with the lemon sauce over the chicken or on the side. Eat with rice.
Chinese Lemon Chicken
Cheers, Annie

Hungry for more fried food? Click below:

Fried Sanddabs with Garlic and Oyster Sauce
Sweet and Sour Fried Fish Recipe
Old Bay Blackened Halibut
Thai Son-in-law Eggs Recipe
Seven Secrets for Perfect Thai Fried Chicken Wings


Bob said...

I vote for rice flour instead of custard powder for dusting and arrowroot for thickening the sauce. That looks tasty for a first try though.

alysia said...

The only thing I could think of to make a lighter batter would to make it more like a tempura batter...which requires ice water or very cold club soda. Hopefully that is helpful!

Janice said...

I agree with aly, use ice water or sparking water. There's something about the cold water that won't make the chicken soggy. Also, be sure to use peanut oil which has a high smoke point and get the temperature of the oil at 350 degrees

Kana said...

I adore this dish but have NEVER made it. Thanks for the recipe Annie!!!

Anonymous said...


It is still January and you have already tried the dreaded frying, good on ya. Your description of the R&G Lemon Chicken is delightful and the next time we are in SF, we will give it a try.

This is the year I will be trying new things as well. Baking Bread(fear of yeast), getting a wok(just let the cat out of the bag, I am not Asian, just a white gal from Michigan, but I am married to an Asian guy), and signing up for a backpacking trip to the Rockies(fear of Cougars that only recently developed.)

So far, I am baking away and look forward to your bread entries. Currently, I am following the King Arthur novice wheat and white bread recipes, but hope to move onto more difficult recipes.

Take Care,

Life 2.0

almadenmike said...

Hmmmm, good! I look forward to trying this in our new kitchen. Googling around I found this discussion on tips for crispy batters: In addition to things mentioned above, like batter ingredients (rice flour + ice cold soda water)and hot oil, one person also recommends storing the pieces already fried on a rack in a 200F oven: warm enough to help prevent sogginess but not so hot as to overcook. I can imagine that especially in humid Malaysia that this tip might be especially beneficial.

Janet @Gourmet Traveller 88 said...

this is my hubby's favorite dish, i have never made before, should give an attempt too!

Kalyn Denny said...

I absolutely love R & G Lounge. I'd say you're very brave to attempt this dish,and it definitely looks good!

Carolyn Jung said...

Panko breadcrumbs? Would that help make it crispier at all? Just a guess....

alysia said...

I forgot to ask if you had pat your chicken dry when you took it out of your marinade before flouring. Also, if you invest in a thermometer, you can ensure that you'll be cooking with a starting oil temp of 375F and that the oil temp doesn't go any lower than 350F.

Single Guy Ben said...

I always used to eat lemon chicken growing up in Hawaii. My mom got so sick of ordering it after awhile. Now I avoid eating it because it is deep fried. But your first effort looks good. I think really the crispiness of the fried chicken part really is more technique than what kind of dusting you do (although cornstarch would be crispier than rice flour). I think you have to have the right heat to fry it up quickly to avoid sitting in the oil bath. I'm sure as you practice you'll find the right trick!

Nate @ House of Annie said...

@all - thanks for your comments!

@Bob - we do have rice flour, so we'll try again with that. Thanks!

@aly - hm, hadn't heard of ice water before. But good suggestion. Thanks!

@Janice - two votes for ice water. Great!

@Maya - you're welcome, but stay tuned for our next attempt!

@Life 2.0 - you can do it!

@Mike - thanks for the research, and the oven suggestion. Really appreciate it!

@Janet - let's trade tips!

@Kalyn - thanks! Maybe one day we can meet up together there ;-)

@Carolyn - that might make it crispier, but I'm not sure that's the texture we're looking for. Thanks for the suggestion!

@aly - we didn't use a thermometer for the oil. Something to look for the next time we go shopping!

@SingleGuyBen - Hm, cornstarch better than rice flour? Sounds like a throwdown is in order!

alysia said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sippity Sup said...

Since I don't know custard flour I gotta go with rice flour. I hope you are not thinking "stupid American!" Just teasing, I'd be stupid no matter my nationality. This seems like a comforting bit of wonderful. GREG

PS I sent you my latest forage of Mustard greens. You sure you are not tired of more?