My grandma Evelyn was from South Carolina, and she knew how to fry a damn chicken. This is all well and good, but she passed away when I was too young to learn the secret chant to make Real Southern Fried Chicken, and thus the torch sputtered and died. A very sad story.
Since we can’t all learn how to make Real Southern Fried Chicken, the Japanese have kindly offered a consolation prize: kaarage. What you really need to know is that it is not supposed to be Real Southern Fried chicken, but it is a much easier substitute. Wait, not a substitute! It is still excellently delicious, just differently so.
Much of the magic comes from a quick marinade. No more than an hour – in fact, by the time you get everything else ready, the chicken will be ready to fry.
Part of the reason it comes together so fast is that you cut boneless, skinless chicken into sort-of-bite-size pieces. More like two bites, or one large one. They fry fast and are are easy to eat, and that’s kind of my personal motto for frying things. I always use thigh meat, but this is a rare occasion where white meat would still work — they cook so quickly it’s difficult to dry them out.
I’ve never tested to see what the temperature of my cooking oil is, and when I tried to tonight I couldn’t find my thermometer. Well! All I know is is that it’s a bit like pancakes: the first one always comes out a little weird. The rest will be fine. You want a nice rolling fuzzy boil when the chicken goes in, not a violent VOOSH! and not a piddling little sizzle. It should be invigorating but not scary.
And the worst part of all: I didn’t get a photo of how much flour to hit the chicken pieces with before frying, and this is the most important step. I’m a pretty crackerjack food journalist, let me tell you. The secret to kaarage — and where it veers drastically away from American fried chicken — is that there is almost no coating on it. Just the loosest of dustings, a few smacks on each side of a dripping-wet piece of chicken and straight into the oil it goes. American fried chicken is often double-coated to ensure a thick crispy skin, something I never cared for. Kaarage gets much of its charm from having almost no crust so that the result is lighter and a little chewy where the bare chicken has cooked a hair faster than the covered part.
Something Japanese and Americans have in common is an appreciation for refreshing and crispy cabbage along side the fried chicken – Koreans like the refreshing and crispy part too, though in the form of pickled radishes. My variation involves a little lightly dressed cabbage, carrot and shiso slaw. It makes sense, particularly when you consider that kaarage is often served with a blob of Kewpie mayonnaise. In this case, there’s a spoonful of Kewpie in the slaw.
Japanese Fried Chicken, as Told to You by a Whitey
until you have the right idea on just how lightly to dress each raw piece of chicken with the flour mixture, you might be best frying one piece at a time until it seems tasty. i’ve also read that double-frying the chicken — that is, taking it out before it is entirely done cooking, letting it cool, and then frying it in the oil again to brown it — makes the crispiness almost indestructible and better for eating cold the next day. this may be true, but i’ve never tried it. another thing is to not try too hard to get nice tidy pieces of chicken cut since the small gnarly bits cook up chewy and are my favorite part. just try to ensure they’re all the same size so they cook at the same speed.
1/2-inch of peeled ginger, grated fine (or more! I do closer to 1-inch)
1 clove garlic, grated fine
1 Tbsp. sugar
1 Tbsp. sake
3 Tbsp. soy sauce
1 tsp. sesame oil
4 boneless, skinless chicken thighs cut into large bite-size pieces
for the coating:
3 heaping spoonfuls of all-purpose flour
3 heaping spoonfuls of corn starch
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. togarashi, (a Japanese spice mix you should keep on hand)
oil for frying (peanut is great, canola will work too)
- Mix together the ginger, garlic, sugar, sake, soy sauce and sesame oil in a medium bowl. Add the cut up chunks of chicken and give it a good stir. Try to remember to stir it every 10 minutes or so to make sure everything is well-covered and gets all the delicious flavorous bits.
- In a smaller bowl, mix together the coating ingredients.
- If you want, make some cabbage slaw now and set aside in the fridge. If not, find something else to do for 15 – 30 minutes to let the chicken marinate. You want the chicken to rest for at least 30 minutes, but no longer than an hour.
- Line a pan or plate with a folded pad of newsprint, paper bags, or paper towels. You’ll be putting hot oily chicken on this to drain. Have everything else also at hand and ready to go for when you start frying: a pair of chopsticks or tongs for grabbing the chicken out of the oil, the chicken itself, the bowl of coating mix, a pair of chopsticks or a fork for actually coating the chicken and dropping it into the oil and a few paper towels or a crusty dish towel or something for wiping up spills.
- Heat your oil in a small, heavy sauce pan. I have no idea how hot, but it’s the medium-low flame on my high-output burner. That’s not helpful at all, is it? Here’s the trick I do either way: take a small little chunk of chicken and drop it into the oil. If it immediately bubbles cheerily and the chicken moves around a bit, you’re good to go. If it FRIES and SPITS your oil is way too hot. If it sort of sits there not doing anything and then sluggishly fizzes, your oil is too cool.
- Taking one piece at a time but working with moderate speed (don’t be nuts, just don’t be distracted), pick up the chicken, don’t let it drain too much (the juice is the best part!), quickly slap it around in the coating mixture to get a few sides dusted and then dump it straight into the oil. I cannot overstress how little you need to coat the pieces! It’s literally: drop into the coating and by the time you wrangle it back out again it’ll have enough. If you don’t believe me, experiment; try a piece with a lot of coating, and try a piece with almost none at all. See which one you like better.
- Fry each piece until the coated part is pale golden and the exposed chicken is dark brown. The pieces darken as they cool on the paper, so take care not to overcook. Typically, my pieces take about 3 – 5 minutes to cook.
- Work in batches of about five pieces of chicken at a time until you’re all done.
- Carefully set the hot pot of oil way aside somewhere where no one will bump it and then eat your dinner.
the shiso is the real star of the show here. if you can find it at an asian market, I highly recommend you get it, it’s delightful. it’s also very easy to grow (it’s a weed!) if you’re interested in that kind of thing. also, there’s a Vietnamese variety that has a beautiful purple underside that is sometimes easier to find, and that works too. this recipe is a small batch, but it’s easily doubled or tripled.
1/4 small head of cabbage, finely shredded
1 carrot, shredded
about 5 or 6 shiso leaves, finely chopped
1 Tbsp. Kewpie mayonnaise
1 Tbsp. seasoned Japanese rice vinegar (often called “sushi vinegar”)
2 tsp. granulated sugar
- Combine everything! You’re done. Eat within an hour or two.