'The true cook is the perfect blend, the only perfect blend, of artist and philosopher. He knows his worth: he holds in his palm the happiness of mankind, the welfare of generations yet unborn.'

Friday, 12 April 2013

Lemon chicken 西檸煎軟雞

We are all (or at least myself...) slaves of our habits, and I've been finding it extremely difficult to drag myself to go back to writing blog posts after a three-month absence! But here I am - the semester is drawing to a close and I'll try my best to dig up all the saved photos and recipes that I meant to post up ages ago. Thank you for checking for updates!

A few days ago the great British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher passed away. It was a news that I had anticipated for a long time since her health had been on the decline for more than a decade, and yet when the news struck I was still shocked and saddened. Growing up in Hong Kong, many of us had a special fascination for all things British, and I remember that I went through a phase of Anglophilia in my teenage years. I held Margaret Thatcher in very high esteem and even read his memoir The Downing Street Years as a thirteen-year-old even though I hadn't the slightest clue about British politics!

 Even today, many Hong Kong people are still nostalgic about our colonial past. I dare say many of us wish the clock could tick back in time! It's common in human history to look at the past with somewhat misplaced nostalgia and think of the past as a bygone golden age. Such a tendency is even more pronounced when the current state of affairs is a cause for discontentment - which is the case with Hong Kong at the moment.

While the Brits aren't known for for their gastronomy, they had left an unmistakable stamp on the food culture of Hong Kong. Think of milk tea, custard tarts, and the fusion dishes that were created as a result of British influence on Cantonese cuisine. The dish that I'm preparing today, lemon chicken, is undoubtedly a product of Hong Kong's colonial melange of East meets West. Its name in Chinese, 西檸煎軟雞 'pan-fried succulent chicken with western lemon', clearly shows that it's a fusion dish. The Chinese didn't use fresh fruits in their savoury cooking traditionally, and the sauce for this dish usually contains Bird's custard powder, an unmistakably British product that lends a fluorescent yellow colour and a custardy flavour and consistency. It is the sort of sweet-and-sour flavour that Westerners love, and it's no surprise that it's a popular item in Chinese takeaways overseas - although I heard that orange (rather than lemon) chicken is the default version in the USA?

Lemon chicken, or pan-fried succulent chicken with western lemon 西檸煎軟雞

I'm going natural here: no custard powder for me! I also include the zests of the lemon to give some zing to the sauce. The dish is actually quite simple: fried chicken cutlets with a lemon sauce. However, the simpler the dish the more important each step becomes. Use chicken thighs, which give a better texture than breasts; marinade the chicken so that it enters the savoury category rather than dessert; watch the frying time so that the chicken is just cooked and succulent (軟雞!); and serve the chicken as soon as it is cooked. I actually prefer serving the sauce separately so that it doesn't soften the hard-wrought crust.

3 boned and skinless chicken thighs, about 350g
1 lemon
Vegetable oil, for frying
Cornflour, for dipping the chicken

4 tsp light soya sauce
2 tsp Shaoxing rice wine
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
Pinch of white pepper

Zests of 1 lemon
2 tbsp (30ml) strained lemon juice
1 tbsp cornflour
3-4 tbsp (45-60g) sugar, depending on how tart or sweet you like your sauce
1 tsp light soya sauce
1/4 tsp salt
125ml (1/2 cup) chicken stock

1. Mix the ingredients for the marinade, and mix well with the chicken thighs. Set aside for at least 30 minutes, preferably overnight in the fridge.

2. For the sauce, start by adding the lemon zests, juice, cornflour and sugar in a roomy bowl. Mix with a spoon.

Now add the salt and soya sauce. Mix again and add the chicken stock gradually. Taste for a good balance of saltiness, sweetness and tanginess.

3. Rid the chicken of excess marinade, and dip each piece of chicken thigh in a bowl to which you added cornflour. Repeat with the other side. Set aside.

4. Line a plate with kitchen paper. In a wide and deep wok or saucepan, heat plenty of oil on high heat until it reaches about 180C. If you dip a wooden (not plastic!) chopstick in you see small bubbles surrounding the chopstick. If the oil isn't hot enough, the coating will fall off as the chicken is dipped into the oil.

Can't really see the bubbles here because of the reflection...
5. When the oil is nice and hot, carefully slide the chicken in one by one. Reduce the heat to medium immediately, and fry the chicken pieces until it's about 80% cooked and starts to brown, about 2-3 minutes. Do turn the chicken pieces from time to time to make sure they cook evenly.

6. When you feel that the chicken is almost (but not quite) fully cooked, lift them out of the oil carefully with a spotted spoon, and place the fried chicken on the plate lined with kitchen paper. Whack the heat up and let the oil temperature increase till smoky hot again, about 1 minute. We're going to twice-fry the chicken, which ensures an ultra-crisp crust! (This is a great Chinese frying technique!)

7. Now, carefully, slide the chicken back into the oil. Be careful as the oil will splatter if you're not careful. Fry for another 30 secs to 1 minute, until the chicken pieces are golden brown and a nice crust is formed. Remove from the oil and set aside on the plate that you lined with kitchen paper.

8. Let the chicken rest for a minute or two, remove the kitchen paper, and cut into thickish strips.

9. Depending on whether you're using the same wok/saucepan as the one you just used to fry the chicken, you may have to take care of the hot oil - be careful! In any case you want the pan to be clean and not covered with crusty bits of fried crust.

Give the sauce another good stir - the cornflour would have settled. Heat a clean pan until it's hot, add the sauce in one go and keep stirring with your other hand using a spatula or whatever flat-bottom utensil you have on hand. Turn the heat down to low immediately - the sauce will thicken very quickly. The consistency of the sauce will vary depending on your measurements. If it's too watery, keep cooking to steam off some of the moisture; if it's too thick and gluey, add a little water to thin it out. You want a thickish sauce that isn't like glue but not watery either.

10. Pour onto the chicken slices evenly, or serve on the side. Serve soonest.

Some people garnish with thin slices of lemon. I think the dish is complete as it is!

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