A variation of the basic stir fried dish with sweet and sour sauce, lemon chicken is a familiar item in the menu of Chinese restaurants in Metro Manila. The curious thing is that the dish does not appear to have originated in China but was the specialty of the former Pearl’s Chinese Restaurant at 148 West 48th Street in New York City and a creation of a chef named Lee Lum.
How is it different from the more common Chinese sweet and sour dishes? First, chicken fillets are used instead of pork or fish. Second, the souring agent is lemon juice rather than vinegar which makes the sauce less pungent and more aromatic. Third, white sugar rather than dark brown or palm sugar is caramelized to create the thick sticky sauce.
The obvious question is how the sauce acquires its bright yellow color. Any cook worth his salt knows that lemon juice alone cannot achieve such a feat. It’s something I’ve experimented on for a while and I think I’ve finally found the right answers — turmeric, lemon zest and lemon extract.
Here is the recipe for my version of lemon chicken, chili peppers added for more zing.
- 500 g. of chicken thigh fillets (you can use breast but I find dark meat more flavorful)
½ c. of tapioca (or corn) starch
2 to 3 c. of cooking oil for deep frying
freshly snipped cilantro for garnish (optional but highly recommended)
For the lemon sauce:
½ c. of freshly squeezed lemon juice
½ c. of water
1 to 1-1/4 c. of white sugar (depending on how sweet you want your sauce)
a generous pinch of salt
a small piece of turmeric (yellow ginger), peeled and grated
1 tbsp. of lemon zest
2 finger chilis, sliced into thin rings
½ tsp. of lemon extract
- Start by making the lemon sauce. Into a small sauce pan, pour the lemon juice and water. Add the sugar and boil for about 10 minutes (without stirring to prevent crystals from forming although you may swirl the pan) or until the mixture thickens and changes color. DO NOT allow to turn dark brown. Lower the heat, add the grated turmeric, lemon zest, finger chilis and salt. Swirl several times then turn off the heat. Allow to steep while you prepare the chicken.
Start heating the cooking oil in a wok or frying pan.
Line a shallow bowl with several layers of absorbent paper towels.
Cut the chicken into thin slices (for best results, hold the knife at a 45-degree angle). Place in a bowl and season with salt and pepper. Sprinkle with a little water to help the starch stick to the meat. Add the starch and toss to coat each piece thoroughly.
Cook the chicken pieces (in batches to avoid overcrowding the pan) making sure they do not stick to one another during frying. I do this by dropping the chicken pieces one by one. It entails more work but it yields better results. Fry the chicken pieces until lightly browned and crisp. Scoop out from the oil and drain on the prepared paper towels.
Transfer the cooked chicken to a platter. Stir the lemon extract into the sauce, pour the sauce over the chicken and garnish with snipped cilantro. Serve at once.
Cooking time (duration): 20 minutes
Number of servings (yield): 4