Hankering for just a little bit of chicken, fried? And how about a cold beer on a Friday night? Much rhapsodized and probably the only song topic that the Zac Brown Band have in common with Nas, this beloved classic American staple is most often associated with hot, arid Kentucky summers, family barbecues, cut-off jean shorts, picnic tables and fireworks.
While there’s no shortage of heritage recipes for fried chicken, the recipe usually involves a rub with paprika or cayenne pepper, a buttermilk marinade, and a thick batter of the marinade and flour solution before frying in a pot of lard, shortening or oil. It’s time-tested and well embraced.
However, there are at least five fried chicken traditions from countries across the Pacific Ocean that are rapidly sweeping the nation—they’re served at bubble tea houses, out of food trucks, paired with a beer at izakayas, or slathered in sweet chili sauce at a mom n’ pop Korean restaurant. They use unique blends of spices, are fried to perfection without being greasy for optimal grabbing on the go, and they are coming to major cities across the continent. Watch out, Colonel Sanders: the next wave of KFC is going to be Korean.
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One of the easiest comfort snacks to make at home, Japanese karaage (kara-age literally means “deep fried, Chinese style”, which means that it is fried without batter) is a staple at izakayas, or tapas-style pubs, served with a spritz of lemon and a side of mayo; packed away in bento lunches; swimming in sweet curry to complete a hearty dinner, or picked up at any 7-11 across Japan. In New York and LA, it can even be found sandwiched between two layers of ramen “buns”, and slathered with Sriracha mayo, for a cardiac-arresting Kodiak (or Instagram) moment. Usually darker cuts of meat are marinated in a soy sauce and sake-based seasoning, then dredged in a coating of flour and cornstarch and fried in a light oil to create a beautiful balance of tender, juicy meat and a light, crisp exterior.
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Don’t confuse this massively popular street food favourite with the Colonel’s greasy nondescript lumps of factory-processed meat. Taiwanese popcorn chicken is best in hand for wandering the lit-up stalls of Taiwan’s markets, or paired with a milky bubble tea at a boba café. It’s usually made with chicken thighs chopped into small pieces and marinated with a mix of soy sauce, rice wine, Chinese five spice powder, white pepper (very important!), a dash of sugar, garlic and ginger. Then it’s coated with potato starch and deep-fried in small batches. Served with a sprinkle of fresh thai basil, these delectable morsels of deep-fried goodness will have you running to the nearest bubble tea house next time you get a craving for fried chicken.
As far as I’m concerned, KFC stands for Korean Fried Chicken, an emerging new food trend among North American food enthusiasts. Korean fried chicken is typically fried twice, giving it an extra-crispy exterior. Since purveyors of these deep- (and double-!) fried delights typically look for younger chickens, the resulting meat is guaranteed to be more tender. It’s typically seasoned with spices, garlic and ginger before frying, but Korean fried chicken can be served in any way: glazed over in sweet soy and ginger sauce, topped with Korean mustard and green onion, sprinkled generously with salt and pepper, or any other combination of flavors according to the place and person. Rarely served as an entire meal, Korean fried chicken is typically served with pickled radishes and beer or soju, creating a holy trinity of tangy, oily and cold refreshment.
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This might not be your mama’s fried chicken, but it is Mamak’s fried chicken. Mamak refers to the fusion of flavors between Indian and Malay cultures, which is deeply at home in every bite of this curry-spiced drumstick. The chicken is rubbed with curry powder, then marinated in yogurt or buttermilk, ginger and more curry overnight, and finally dredged in flour and—you guessed it: curry!—and deep-fried. Popularly sold in the Muslim-Indian stalls in night markets across Kuala Lumpur, it’s only a matter of time before this tangy and flavorful fried chicken flies across the Pacific and into our nation’s food trucks.
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This fried chicken is named after the city of Hat Yai, located on the southern tip of Thailand, but it’s served all over the country. As Hat Yai fried chicken was conceived (as with most Thai dishes) to be served alongside steamed or sticky rice, there’s a necessity for strong flavors to balance out unseasoned rice. In this case, the flavors come from coriander seed, a healthy pour of fish sauce, cilantro, cumin, white pepper, shallots and garlic. These ingredients are combined in coconut milk and used to marinate the chicken for at least three hours, then double-fried: first on low heat, then on high. Garnished with cilantro or thai basil, and slathered with sweet chili sauce, this southern specialty has the South beat in terms of finger-lickin’ goods.
Jessica Wei is a travel writer and editor based in Montreal, Canada. Her work has appeared in the Guardian, Maisonneuve magazine, Buzzfeed Ideas and other publications.