Chinese lemon chicken is a popular takeaway item that is so easy to recreate at home. With a bit of guidance, anyone can master this sweet and crispy Chinese-style fried chicken dish!
In this article, we’ll find out how to make this dish using an oven or air fryer. We’ll also learn how to marinade different poultry parts - thigh or breast- and to make the accompanying sauce. Continue reading to learn how to cook this easy lemon chicken recipe at home within the hour!
What is it?
Chinese lemon chicken is cooked with bite-sized pieces of boneless, skinless chicken. The meat is fried until golden and crispy, then served with sweet and sour sauce.
It is best eaten as a side dish with cooked white rice, or together with other Chinese side dishes.
The dish was invented in Hong Kong and served in various Chinatown restaurants in Western countries. Yes, Chinese lemon chicken is actually not from China. The dish became popular because of its tangy sauce and fried bits, a result of Chinese immigrants customising Asian dishes to Western preferences.
While its origins are unknown, many cookbooks refer to it as a British or Canadian fusion dish. There are adapted versions in Britain, Canada, America, and Australasia.
Chinese lemon chicken is so delicious as the tangy sweetness of citrus sauce cleanses the palate. Greasiness disappears, but you’ll still get the crispy goodness.
The meat remains flavourful inside-out, despite being covered with sauces. Eaten with plain white rice or fried chow mein, the citrus sauce makes a wonderful gravy.
A typical serving of Chinese lemon chicken has an estimated calorie of 200 kcal. This is for every 100 grams of meat used in the dish.
The ingredients for this recipe can be divided into four main parts. First, choose a choice of poultry cut - thigh, breast or wings. Next, lemons for the sauce, and cornstarch for the batter. Finally, there are some extra ingredients indicated below for the marinade.
Cuts of meat
We can use chicken thighs or breasts to cook Chinese lemon chicken. An alternative choice is to use wings. The thighs would cook slightly longer than the breasts, and the wings would cook faster. Let’s explore the difference between the different cuts.
Our favourite is the thighs as they are tender and packed with flavour compared to the breasts. Appearance-wise, the part is dark with skin that protects the fat. This is monounsaturated fat, supposed to help with weight loss and lower cholesterol.
The breasts, in contrast, are tough and lean comparatively. Although they can be bought with the skin, these are usually harder to find. For a healthier version of Chinese lemon chicken, you can choose breast meat since it has less fat. We recommend using breasts for people who prefer a meatier bite to their chicken.
If neither types of cut are available, choose wings. The skin-to-meat ratio of wings is higher, so it cooks faster. For someone who prioritises the crispy goodness of the dish, wings are a good choice. The wings contain large amounts of Vitamins A and B which are good for your immune system.
However, please bear in mind that you will need to make a bit more sauce as there is more surface area to coat for wings. We recommend making 1.5 times more sauce.
If you switch the meat to pork, and you can also cook sweet and sour pork chop with the same ingredients as the Chinese lemon chicken recipe.
Marinade and Batter
A tasty lemon chicken marinade combines soy sauce, oyster sauce, cooking wine, sesame oil, sugar and white pepper. While there are other marinade varieties, we found this combination of seasonings to be our favourite. It adds a layer umami-flavour to the meat that balances well with the sweet and sour sauce.
We recommend marinating the meat for about 1 hour. However, if you're in a hurry, let the meat soak in the marinade for at least 5 minutes.
For the batter, you will just need plain flour, cornstarch, and eggs. Measure out the plain flour and cornstarch, and mix them in a bowl. Once the marinated chicken is ready for cooking, break an egg over the meat and mix it thoroughly.
After that, add the dry flour mix to the wet marinated chicken and combine them together. We recommend pouring the dry mix bit by bit into the wet mix. This method will help you ensure the meat is evenly coated by the flour and starch.
Once the chicken is all battered up, we suggest letting it sit for a few minutes to allow the batter to adhere to the meat. For a visual guide, we recommend watching our recipe video below.
To make the lemon chicken sauce, you have to reduce a mixture of lemon juice, honey, cornstarch and water until becomes a thick sauce.
For lemons, choose those that are not green, but are dark yellow and feel heavy. This indicates freshness and juiciness. Squeeze out the lemon juice from the fruit, but make sure to discard any seeds.
For a stronger lemony taste, you can also peel some zest and finely chop them. The zest will strengthen the refreshing fruity flavour while adding more fragrance to the sauce.
While you can substitute lemon with other citrus fruits like orange and lime, the taste will vary. Using oranges will result in a less sour but sweeter sauce, while limes will create a very sour gravy due to their sharp acidity.
We think that a combination of toasted sesame seeds and chopped spring onions make the best garnish for this recipe. The sesame seeds add a crunchy texture and nutty flavour to the overall dish. In addition, the spring onions provide a refreshing earthiness that cuts through the sweetness and sourness of the dish. Besides, the green spring onions also make the overall dish look more appetising.
To ensure your Chinese lemon chicken turns out perfectly, take note of these cooking tips.
- When marinating the chicken meat, use your hands to gently massage the seasonings into the meat. This not only helps tenderise the meat, but we also found that the seasonings' flavours seep into them better.
- Use chopsticks to ensure the dry flour mix evenly coats the marinated meat. We do not recommend mixing the batter using your hands as too much flour and starch end up sticking to your hands.
- When making the sauce, do not skip adding the cornstarch. The starch helps to create a thicker gravy in addition to producing a glossy finish.
- Coat the sauce evenly on each meat strip, so that each bite is an aromatic, tart sensation.
- In order to have a less oily version of the dish, use an air fryer or oven. Alternatively, use olive oil to deep fry as it contains healthy fat that protects heart diseases.
- Finally, to enjoy the fried lemon chicken thighs or breasts, top it with some white sesame seeds and serve it with rice or chow mein.
Frying in oil
Frying in oil is one way to get crispy Chinese lemon chicken. The temperature should be around 200 degrees Celsius (390°F). When the oil is bubbling, dip the handle of a wooden spoon. If it is stealthily bubbling, you’re ready to cook.
None or too many bubbles means that the pan is too cold or hot. Be careful, the wrong temperature will mean a longer time to cook.
Also, do not add too many ingredients at once as overcrowding results in a temperature drop. The food will also become oilier. Deep frying requires about 5-6 minutes maximum.
Using an Airfryer
For those who are health conscious, you can still get crispy yet healthy Chinese lemon chicken - just use an air fryer. You will not need oil to fry the meat but spray a slight touch of oil anyway for glossiness.
Preheat the fryer for 2 to 3 minutes at 200 degrees Celsius (390°F) before adding the meat to the air fryer basket. We recommend cooking the meat for 20 minutes. However, make sure to flip the chicken at the halfway point (after 10 minutes). This is to ensure a crispy texture on all sides.
If you prefer the dish with less browning and less crisp, we recommend air frying at 190 degrees Celcius (375°F) for 20 minutes.
Using an Oven
You can choose to oven bake Chinese lemon chicken. Without oil, baking does not add additional calories to the food. The marinaded meat turns out juicy, tender, and savoury.
Another reason is that frying converts food starch to carcinogens, a cause of heart disease and cancer. Baking does not cause the same reaction.
To bake Chinese lemon chicken, set the oven at 200 degrees Celsius (390°F) and cook for about 20-30 minutes.
Now, let’s find out how to achieve the sauce of perfection.
First, mix lemon juice, honey, cornstarch and water in a bowl. Make sure all the cornstarch has dissolved with no solid clumps visible. Then, add the Chinese lemon chicken sauce to the pan under medium heat. Continue heating it up to reduce the gravy until it starts to bubble up. We recommend stopping at the point of bubbling as the sauce will thicken even further as it cools down.
Some people may suggest skipping the cornstarch for the sauce of the easy lemon chicken recipe. In contrast, we highly recommend you add in the cornstarch. The starch slurry enhances the overall sweet gravy by making it thicker and glossier - just like how you get it at your favourite Chinese takeaway shop.
Chinese Lemon Chicken Recipe | Oven or Air Fryer
- 300 g chicken thigh fillet
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon cooking wine
- 1 tablespoon oyster sauce
- 1 teaspoon sesame oil
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1 teaspoon corn starch
- white pepper
- 1 egg
- 30 g plain flour
- 50 g corn starch
- 1 lemon
- 3 tablespoon honey
- 1 teaspoon corn starch
- 70 ml water
- toasted sesame seed
- chopped spring onions
- Slice the meat into bite sized pieces. Marinate for at least 5 minutes with a mixture of oyster sauce, soy sauce, cooking wine, sesame oil, sugar, corn starch, and white pepper.
- In a separate bowl, mix the plain flour and cornstarch together. Once the marinated chicken is ready, crack the egg over them and mix it thoroughly. Add the dry flour mix to the marinated chicken bit by bit while combining. Continue to do so until all the chicken have been coated evenly with the batter. Place the chicken on the baking tray lined with parchment paper.
- Preheat the oven to 200 degrees Celcius (390 degrees Fahrenheit). Once ready, stick the baking tray in the oven for 20-30. At the halfway point, quickly flip the meat and pop it back into the oven.
- Squeeze the lemon and mix the juice with honey, cornstarch and water. Pour the juice mixture into a pan under medium heat. Reduce the sweet gravy until it starts bubbling to form a thick consistency. Add the baked meat to the pan and stir coat them with the sauce. Finally, sprinkle sesame seeds and spring onions.
- Pouring or spraying the chicken meat with some vegetable oil before baking will help make the final dish turn out more crispier and juicier.
- You can fry the meat gently for a while for extra crispiness. You can fry the meat in an oven-proof skillet and then bake your Chinese lemon chicken in it directly.
Calories have been calculated using an online calculator. Nutritional information offered on Honest Food Talks is for general information purposes and are only rough estimations.
We hope you have enjoyed this recipe. If you have tried it, we at Honest Food Talks would love to see your finger-licking good outcome. So tag us on Instagram @honestfoodtalks if you’ve posted Instagram photos of this delicious dish!