The dish is popularly called Chinese lemon chicken but it isn’t Chinese at all. The association with Chinese cuisine has to do with the fact that it was created by a cook with a Chinese name and first served in a Chinese restaurant. “Chinese” lemon chicken 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.
Since its debut in the 1960s, the popularity of the dish has spread not only in North America but beyond. The original recipe, as published in 1969 in New York Times, included gin or vodka, chestnut flour and MSG among the ingredients.
My lemon chicken is not the same as Pearl’s. Instead of coating the cut-up chicken fillet with batter, whole fillets are dredged in flour, dipped in egg and coated with panko before double frying — initially over medium heat and then over high heat. It’s an Asian technique that results in ultra crisp breading.
It’s pretty much Japanese chicken katsu except that instead of drizzling katsu sauce over the fried chicken fillets, there’s lemon sauce.
The lemon sauce is made without starch. Instead, sugar, lemon juice, rice wine and salt are boiled together until the mixture turns syrupy. It’s the same technique I use when cooking sweet sour chicken and orange chicken. The sauce does not get lumpy as it cools.
- ½ cup sugar
- ¼ cup lemon juice - freshly squeezed
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons rice wine
- ¼ cup rice flour
- 1 large egg - beaten
- 1 ½ cups panko
- cooking oil
- thinly sliced scallions
Marinate the chicken
- Wipe the chicken thigh fillets dry.
- Place the chicken fillets between sheets of sling film and pound with a kitchen mallet until the thickness is even.
- Place the pounded chicken in a bowl, add the five-spice powder, salt and pepper, and toss well.
- Cover the bowl with the seasoned chicken and keep in the fridge for three to eight hours.
Make lemon sauce
- In a small sauce pan, stir all the ingredients for the lemon sauce.
- Bring to the boil, lower the heat to medium and boil gently, oncovered, until thickened, about 12 minutes.
Double fry the chicken
- Place the rice flour, egg and panko in three separate shallow bowls.
- Take the chicken out of the fridge.
- Dredge each chicken fillet in flour and shake off the excess.
- Dip the floured chicken in egg making sure every inch of the surface is moistened.
- Roll the chicken fillet in panko to coat the surface completely.
- Heat enough cooking oil in a wok or frying pan to reach a depth of at least two inches.
- Over medium heat, fry the chicken fillets in batches for two to three minutes per side, scoop out and rest on a rack or plate lined with paper towels.
- Turn up the heat to high.
- Fry the chicken fillets a second time for a minute or so until browned and crisp.
- Chop the fried chicken fillets into strips and arrange in a serving plate or bowl.
- Drizzle the lemon sauce over the chicken and sprinkle with sliced scallions.
- Serve the lemon chicken with rice.