Lighter Sticky Sesame Chicken
My children love all kinds of ‘Chinese’ (or perhaps Americanised Chinese is a more accurate description) dishes where the chicken is deep-fried or even double deep-fried to achieve a crunchy exterior and a juicy interior and then dunked in a sticky sauce. Personally, I am not a huge fan of the grease and the sweet and sour but even I find them irresistible. Such is the power of the fried-chicken-in-a-sauce.
A few months ago, I decided to make sesame chicken for the first time. It was as though the Universe (or was that Google? Same thing?) wanted me to, because I kept seeing versions/suggestions for it all over the Internet and it got to the point where I couldn’t ignore the signs. So I looked up a few recipes, used a hybrid of some out of them and came up with a version that seemed suitably adequate.
I wasn’t expecting the reaction it received.
The children loved it so much that this has surpassed their usual favourites such as sweet & sour chicken, plum chicken and orange chicken. I get asked every few days (with puppy dog eyes to boot) when I was going to cook sesame chicken next. And while I love cooking for my family, I groan inwardly at the deep-frying involved.
Since I find myself eventually giving in and making this often these days, I decided to see if I could do a lighter version without any discernible loss of flavour as compared to the original, double deep-fried kind. I have been experimenting doggedly in the past few weeks – and surprise! my children haven’t complained – until I arrived at the version that I felt rivalled the original.
The obvious answer was to either bake or air fry the chicken but the sight of the emerging dry, pale chicken (see the photo below) made my heart sink.
The solution eventually presented itself when I used a combination of cooking techniques. I first shallow fried the chicken and then air fried it (you could bake it if you do not own an air fryer, see my instructions below) to mimic the double – frying process. The bonus here is that whatever oil the chicken absorbed in step 1, it’ll give most of it up in step 2 and yet you’re left with extremely crunchy ‘fried’ chicken with a beautiful golden crust. It’s a win – win situation, wouldn’t you say?
Note 1: As you can see from the photos, the quantity below makes just enough sauce to cling to the chicken pieces which makes it almost a dryish dish. If you’d like more sauce, use 1.5 to 2 times the sauce quantities.
Note 2: If this seems like a long, drawn out process, you can do it in stages. Marinate the chicken and set it in the fridge the night before. Fry it and make the sauce when you can. Then just before serving, air fry/bake and finish the cooking.
For the Marination
- 1 kg chicken breast cut into 3 to 4 cm cubes
- 1 tbsp light soy sauce
- ½ tsp salt
- ½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 3 large cloves of garlic grated finely (about 1½ tsp paste)
- ¾ tsp baking soda
- 2 egg whites
- 2 tbsp cornflour
For the Sticky Sauce:
- ¼ cup honey or golden syrup 4 tbsp/60 ml
- ¼ cup dark muscovado sugar
- ¼ cup light soy sauce
- ¼ cup ketchup
- ½ cup water
- 2 tsp cornflour
- ½ - 1 tsp crushed chilli flakes optional
- 1 - 3 tsp rice vinegar or lemon juice
- 2 - 4 tsp Chinese toasted sesame oil
For Frying the Chicken
- ¾ to 1 cup cornflour
- flavourless oil for frying
- 1.5 tbsp toasted white sesame seeds
- chopped spring onions
Step 1: The Marination
- Mix all the ingredients listed under marination until well combined and set aside for half an hour.
Step 2: The Frying
- Place a heavy, preferably cast iron pan on high heat and add ¼ to ½ a cup oil (I used ½ a cup) - I know this is still not a small amount, but I promise you, most of it will ooze out during the second stage of cooking. Set a large metal sieve over a bowl in such a manner that the sieve is resting well above the bottom of the bowl.
- In a large bowl, add ½ a cup cornflour, then add 6 to 8 pieces of the marinated chicken. Toss each piece around in the cornstarch, pressing down a bit so that the cornflour adheres to the chicken in lumps.
- When the oil is hot (about 180 - 190 ° C), take a piece of chicken, shake off the excess flour and add to the oil. It should sizzle immediately. If the oil is ready, add in a few more pieces of the chicken, remembering to shake off excess flour. Do not to crowd the pan - the chicken pieces also should have enough room around them so that they don't stick to each other.
- In about 2 minutes, check the underside of the chicken pieces. When you see the batter setting and the colour changing to a pale yellow, flip the chicken pieces over. Fry for another minute or so until the chicken looks evenly coloured all over. Remember, we're NOT cooking the chicken completely at this stage. Remove the pieces to the sieve. Before adding the next batch, fish out as much debris from the oil as possible. Repeat with all the chicken pieces and set aside. Remember to maintain the temperature with each batch, adjusting it to high or low as required.
Step 3: The Sauce
- Make the sauce: In a wok or frying pan large enough to accommodate all the pieces of chicken later and with room enough for mixing well, combine the honey, sugar, soy sauce, ketchup, water, cornstarch and crushed chillies, if using. Bring to a boil and simmer, stirring frequently, until the sauce is thick and glossy. Taste and add lemon juice or vinegar bit by bit to balance the flavours to your preference. Repeat with the sesame oil - its strength varies from brand to brand, so err on the side of caution. Add until you're happy with the sesame flavour in the sauce - it should neither be overpowering nor too delicate. Turn off the heat and set aside.
Step 4: The Second 'Frying'
- Preheat your oven/air-fryer to 200°C. If using the air fryer, place a few pieces of the chicken in the basket without crowding them and cook for 5 minutes or until the chicken is fully cooked and crisp. Make sure you don't overcook for this will make the chicken tough & dry. Transfer to a plate lined with paper towels. Repeat with the remaining chicken. Look at the oil left over under the basket after two batches in the photo below.
- If using the oven, line a large baking sheet with foil, then place a rack over it. Carefully place the chicken pieces on the rack without overcrowding. This arrangement will allow air to circulate around the pieces, not only making them crisp but also drawing out some of the oil from them, which will drip onto the foil below. Again, cook until the chicken is done and is crispy on the outside.
Step 5: The Assembly
- Once all the chicken is done, add the pieces to the waiting sauce. You don't need to turn on the heat unless the sauce has cooled too much, in which case, warm the sauce, stirring, then turn off the heat and add the chicken. Mix gently, making sure all the chicken is coated with the sauce.
- Serve garnished with the sesame seeds and spring onions. Steamed jasmine rice makes the best accompaniment.