Monday, January 20, 2014

Big boy lemon chicken

Lemon chicken has a bad reputation here in the States. That is because it is invariably given a serious thrashing in some Chinese fast food joint. What we end up in those places is almost always a serving of greasy, heavy, poor quality fried chicken thickly coated in a leaden lemon lollipop goo. 

This is the stuff of nightmares, as far as I'm concerned. Super sweet with little chicken flavor, it seems more like a creation of Willy Wonka than an actual Chinese chef.

But in fact, this is merely a twisted, inauthentic take on something that with a bit of thought can actually be divinely delicious.

If you look into the lineage behind this recipe, you find that it came from Guangzhou, a city that really, really, really knows how to eat. Their elevated take on classic Cantonese food is almost always so light, flavorful, and aesthetically pleasing that Chinese gourmets number it among the Great Four Cuisines.

This past week the thought of whipping up some really good lemon chicken started to haunt me. And when I obsess about a dish like this, my brain soon becomes a very annoying place to live in as images and ideas start to crowd out my dreams, and this goes on until I figure out the answers. Staring at the ceiling at three a.m., I started picturing how it could be tweaked a bit, with a bit more breadth in the flavor spectrum, a bit more depth in the texture, and a little Italian twist to take this old chestnut into the twenty-first century. 

This is the result, and I am in love and my sleep is once more uninterrupted by lemons and poultry.

Here the chicken breast is sliced thinly, patted even thinner, and then given a simple marinade. It is coated with an egg white and then dipped in half sweet potato flour and half tempura flour because that happens to currently be my favorite fry coating, as it crisps up into a crunchy, super-light layer that seals in all of the chicken's juices. 
Pat flat with side of cleaver

The sauce is nothing more than fresh lemon juice, sugar, and salt, with a bit of garlic added to lend a touch of earthy perfume to stand up against the floral notes of the lemon. And finally, I took a cue from the best way to cook artichokes on the planet (Italy's baby artichokes with lemons and Parmesan)* and fried some lemon slices in oil. 

This ended up being the perfect foil for the sweet/sour sauce because the peel is ever-so-slightly bitter, and then it caramelizes in the oil, which gives the peel a dark sort of sweetness. Nothing at all cloying here.

Sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savory are all balanced, and it is pure dynamite. I call it “big boy” because this definitely is not designed for toddlers.

Big boy lemon chicken
Níngméng ji  檸檬雞
Serves 4

1 organic, free range chicken breast (half a whole breast), bones and skin removed
½ teaspoon sea salt
1 tablespoon rice wine of any kind
Freshly ground pepper to taste
1 large egg white, lightly beaten
½ cup tempura batter mix (like Shirakiku brand)
½ cup sweet potato flour (get a Taiwanese brand)

Juice from half a lemon (about 2 tablespoons), improved Meyer lemon recommended
2 tablespoons sugar
½ teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoon cornstarch
1 tablespoon filtered water
1 tablespoon fresh oil
1 clove garlic, minced

The rest:
The other half of the lemon, cut in half and sliced very thinly, seeds removed
Peanut or vegetable oil as needed

1. Remove the tendons and any membranes from the meat. Use a sharp chef’s knife to cut the breast across the grain into diagonal ½ inch thick slices, and then gently flatten each slice with a light whack from the wide side of the blade. (These three steps ensure that the meat will be supremely tender.) 

2. Place the slices in a small work bowl and toss in the salt, wine, and pepper; cover and refrigerate for an hour or more. An hour or so before you want to serve this, toss the chicken with the egg white, and then dip each slice a mixture of the tempura flour and sweet potato flour. Lay the slices on a large plate next to the stove and have a pair of tongs or chopsticks ready, as well as a clean work bowl.
Scrape out the tendons

3. Mix together the lemon juice, sugar, salt, and cornstarch, and then stir in the water. Have the oil and garlic ready alongside a serving plate.

4. First, fry the lemon slices by heating about ½ inch of oil in a wok or pan on medium and then placing the slices in the oil in a single layer. Turn the slices over as they brown, and when they have a good color on them, remove them to the serving plate and skim any tiny bits out of the oil. Fry the coated chicken in the oil in a single layer, and when each side is brown on both sides, remove to the clean work bowl; repeat until all have been fried, adding more oil as necessary. (This can be done ahead of time up to this point and the chicken kept warm in a low oven.)

5. Just before serving, pour out the oil in the wok or pan and wipe it clean. Heat the wok over medium-high and add the oil and garlic. Toss the garlic in the oil until it starts to smell great but hasn't browned, and then pour all of the sauce mixture in at once. Stir it around quickly as it comes to a boil and quickly toss in all of the chicken and lemon slices. Continue to toss these in the sauce until they are all lightly coated, and then arrange this back on the plate. Serve immediately with steamed rice.

Thanks to Cheryl Sternman Rule for allowing me to link to her recipe.


  1. Hi Carolyn, earlier I had asked to see more of yours great recipes, I have found your blog. You have posted some of my dreamed dishes that I had tasted at a younger age. I am so excited to try them out. I am grateful that you share your fantastic cooking to the world, I consider that is the larger scale contribution to society. Lynn Nickels

  2. Hi Lynn, and thanks! Your kind words are much appreciated.

  3. xie xie, xiao jie! i am using your recipes to impress my taiwanese family :) thank you for making it easy, fun and onolicious. i am drooling in anticipation of your cookbook!

    1. Nali! Glad to help. And thank you!

      I remember trying to make Western favorites for my Taiwanese family, which always left them a bit disconcerted. Then I tried making Chinese, and boy were they good sports,..

  4. I've never seen lemon chicken on the menu of Chinese restaurants (neither at fast-food style nor slightly more posh places) here in Germany. Maybe it's not popular with the guests, or maybe it's not popular with the restaurant owners. However, reading your recipe made me drooling over my keyboard - I absolutely have to try this one out soon!
    Btw, I stumbled onto your blog while looking for methods to make fermented rice wine - I need it for a steamed white cake (pak thong kou, I think it's called) and was uncertain about quantities and the safety of the "weird white fuzz" on top of the rice. Love your instructions on it - very detailed. Will try it out again, as I threw away my old batch with the "white fuzz with tiny black dots".


    1. Hi Serena, Lemon chicken is not as popular here in the States as it once was, but fast food places still offer it, along with orange chicken, sweet and sour chicken... the usual. But this updated recipe is truly delicious!

      Glad my recipes for fermented rice wine were helpful. Thanks!