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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, April 20, 2010

A zesty evolution in Chinese take-out

By Lee Cataluna

Remember those good old college days, when to celebrate the end of mid-terms everyone would head to the cheap take-out to get a carton of greasy, sticky, terrible, wonderful lemon chicken? That was a gut-bomb from heaven. Nothing says "I aced that macroeconomics test" like lemon chicken. The way it got stuck in your molars and took out your fillings. Good times.

Or are you part of the orange chicken generation?

The Panda-ization of take-out Chinese food has brought orange chicken to the forefront of take-out American-style, Hunan-inspired Chinese food. Lemon chicken has become the weak sister, relegated to wobbly Formica-tabled greasy spoon joints that haven't updated their menu in 35 years. So retro. In the new, hip, slate-countered chain establishments, it's orange chicken all the way.

The basics are the same: boneless chicken pieces are marinated in some sort of shoyu/sherry type mixture, coated in batter and deep-fried. Then, a sweet-sour sauce is poured on. In the case of lemon chicken, the sauce is made of stuff like lemon juice, chicken broth, vinegar and a ton of sugar. For orange chicken, same thing, but with orange juice and more savory taste.

It could be argued that there are fundamental differences between the two dishes, especially as they're known in Hawai'i. Lemon chicken tends to be the whole chicken cutlet cut into long strips, dipped in an eggy batter that fries up extra crunchy. Orange chicken starts out as bite-sized pieces, and the batter is more floury and fries up softer. You can pop a piece of orange chicken in your mouth and it won't scrape up your soft palate. You could try to put a whole piece of lemon chicken in your mouth, but the video of the attempt would end up on YouTube under the title "Eww, watch this!"

It seems the dishes mark a shift in our culinary aesthetics. Lemon chicken was stringy, sometimes over-cooked with a shell as hard as concrete and covered in a thick, shiny glaze like something the prop department made for "Ghostbusters." Orange chicken, though, is always the same: tame little bites of soft batter cuddling dainty chicken bits, well-behaved sauce that doesn't slop out of the take-out container and stain your bucket seats. Like townhouses in planned communities, orange chicken is the gentrified version of unruly lemon chicken. Still 'ono, though.