A variation of the basic meat with sweet and sour sauce, lemon chicken is a familiar item in the menu of Chinese restaurants. 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 and lemon zest.
Here is the recipe for my version of Chinese lemon chicken, chilies added for more zing.
Chinese Lemon Chicken Marinade
- Cut the chicken fillets into one-inch cubes. Place in a bowl.
- Mix the rest of the ingredients. Pour over the chicken. Mix well.
- Marinate in the fridge, covered, for a few hours.
Chinese Lemon Chicken 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 chilies and salt. Swirl several times then turn off the heat. Allow to steep while you prepare the chicken.
Chinese Lemon Chicken
- marinated chicken fillets
- 1/2 cup tapioca starch or corn or potato starch
- 2 to 3 cups cooking oil for deep frying
- lemon sauce
- freshly snipped scallions or cilantro for garnish (optional but highly recommended)
- Start heating the cooking oil in a wok or frying pan.
- Take the chicken out of the fridge. Dredge each piece in starch. Drop into the hot oil, one piece at a time. Fry until lightly browned, crisp and cooked through, about five minutes. Remember to fry in batches to avoid overcrowding. As each batch finishes cooking, scoop out and drain on paper towels.
- When all the chicken has been cooked, transfer to a serving platter. Pour the lemon sauce over and around the chicken. Alternatively, place the chicken in a large bowl, pour in the sauce and toss to coat each piece.
- Garnish with snipped scallions or cilantro. Serve at once.