What gives lemon chicken its characteristic crunch is the caramelized sugar in the sauce that coats every piece. So, no, the sauce shouldn’t contain any starch at all. We add chopped chilies though for a bit of zing so, strictly speaking, this is a recipe for Chinese lemon chili chicken.
Is lemon chicken a traditional Chinese dish? Well, a blogger writes about ordering it Beijing — “a cousin to Orange Chicken which originated in Hunan province in China.”
What difference does it make if the sauce has or has no starch? Lemon sauce with starch may be thick but it does not have the characteristic stickiness that is so desirable in this dish.
On the other hand, if you make the sauce without starch, the thickness is acquired by the caramelization of the sugar and the reduction of the liquids. It’s thick and sticky and, when it coats every piece of fried chicken, it hardens and gives the chicken a light and delicious crunch.
For the lemon sauce
- ¼ cup rice wine
- ¼ cup lemon juice freshly squeezed (see notes after the recipe)
- 1 generous pinch salt
- 2 bird's eye chilies chopped (omit if serving to children)
- ½ cup sugar
For the fried chicken
- 6 chicken thigh fillets cut into strips about half an inch wide
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon pepper
- ¼ cup corn starch
- 1 egg white
- cooking oil for frying
- toasted sesame seeds
- thinly sliced scallions
Make the sauce
- In a sauce pan, pour in the rice wine and lemon juice.
- Add salt, chilies (if using) and sugar.
- Boil the sauce until syrupy and amber-colored. It should take about 10 minutes, uncovered, over medium heat.
Fry the chicken
- While the sauce reduces, season the chicken with salt and pepper, and mix. Add the starch, mix well, pour in the egg white and mix again.
- Heat enough cooking oil to reach a depth of at least three inches.
- Fry the chicken in batches, about three minutes per batch, just until lightly browned.
Assemble the dish
- Dump the fried chicken in a bowl, pour in the lemon sauce and toss for a minute until the sauce thickens (it thickens fast as it cools) and coats every piece of chicken well. By the time you're done tossing, there should be very little loose sauce in the bowl.
- Transfer the lemon chili chicken to a platter, sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds and sliced scallions, and serve immediately.