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

One thought on “Chinese Lemon Chicken, 1st Try”

  1. 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?

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