Fried chicken is no stranger to us Americans (nor to anyone around the world, for that matter). From the delicious chicken tenders and nuggets of our childhoods to spicy buffalo wings soothed with cool blue cheese dressing; from gravy-slathered chicken-fried chicken to good ol’ KFC — fried chicken hovers at the top of the list when it comes to naming American foods.
At my first Japanese festival, I was immediately drawn to the fried chicken stand — but it was nothing like anything I’d had at home. This delectable, crispy food is called karaage.
What is karaage?
The word karaage (ka-RAH-gay) originally meant any kind of fried food, but in modern Japan it refers to chicken. Fried food in Japan has roots in Chinese Zen Buddhism of the Muromachi period (1333—1573). The monks ate strict vegetarian diets and generally fried everything with the belief that oil held a lot of potential energy within.
The Zen Buddhist phrase yudan taiteki ( 油断大敵 ) can translate to “Unpreparedness is the greatest enemy” or “He that is too secure is not safe.” The kanji characters in this phrase literally translate to: “Refusal of oil is the big enemy.”
Basically, make sure you always have oil on hand, or else you won’t be able to eat!
In the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1558—1600), the Portuguese first brought over the practice of frying fish and flour-covered food. Later, in the Edo Period (1603—1868), the Japanese began mixing flour and water for frying, resulting in tempura!
Soon after, during the Meiji Period (1868—1912), the word karaage ( 空揚 ) began to be used for non-battered deep-fried foods. “Kara,” in this case using the kanji character for sky, referred to the bright orange colour of a sunny sky.
Starting in the 1950s, however, Japanese cookbooks started using a different kanji for “kara” — this time, it referred to its Chinese origins: 唐揚. This was around the time after World War II when Japan began opening up to outside cultures. The introduction of deep fryers also helped propel karaage to the popularity it has today.
In modern-day Japan, it’s one of many tasty Japanese street foods, and frankly, I don’t think a festival is complete without a hot cup of karaage. At most festivals you can usually buy a regular cup of karaage for the rough equivalent of $3-4, or a bigger cup for $5-6. (It’s also fantastic with beer!)
It’s not just a food for festivals, either! In restaurants its usually served on its own, perhaps with a small bowl of dipping sauce; but more often than not, it’s accompanied by just a sprig of parsley and a wedge of lemon.
Karaage is everywhere, really. A few months ago I went to a friend’s house for dinner, and her mother cooked up a few heaping plates of fresh, hot karaage. It’s a popular component in bentos, too, and I’ve picked up a small package of it once or twice from the grocery store deli to take home for a day when I was too lazy to cook.
A few weeks ago we stopped at a 7-11 on the way home from Matsumoto Castle. While waiting for the bathroom I glanced through the magazine section. Wedding dresses, sports, bizarre anime pornos—and recipes!
I eagerly picked up the one with the karaage on it, and it was the most pleasant surprise! In America, I’d have to thumb through the whole magazine to find the recipe advertised on the cover; but this magazine was entirely about karaage! I wish I could read kanji better, but it had enough pictures and easy words for me to get the gist of its contents.
There were several different recipes for making different kinds of karaage with tips on how to alter it to your tastes; several pages on the various cooking oils you can use; recipes for salads and soups to mix in leftover karaage the day after; even a map of Japan showing the regional variations!
I’d been wanting to try to make karaage for a while at that point; so, last weekend, I decided to give it a shot.
The main ingredient, of course, is chicken — but not just any chicken! Thigh meat, or momo, is the best, because it turns out so tender. The other ingredients can easily be found in any grocery store, as well: ginger, garlic, soy sauce, sake, eggs, oil, salt, and pepper.
The most important ingredient, however, is potato starch!
This bad boy makes all the difference! It gives karaage its trademark crunchy, crispiness, and if you can, you should definitely use this.
The magazine also had a few pages devoted to the different kinds of oils and their properties. Here they are, boiled down:
- salad oil: has a neutral colour, flavour, and scent; makes it a good choice for dressing or frying when you want the batter and chicken to be the focus.
- sesame oil: essential for that “true Chinese style”; two types exist — a clear raw sesame variety and the baked sesame variety, which has a brown colour and a spicy/rice sesame flavour.
- rapeseed oil: basically, canola oil; best for when salad oil is too boring and adds a bit of presence.
- olive oil: the fruity oil! In Japan, there are two types — extra virgin and pure. Extra virgin possesses a stronger flavour and scent; it’s good for frying, or just eating raw on bread or other dipping foods.
- peanut oil: besides peanuts, it also contains almonds and hazelnuts. Originally a way of getting rid of what was considered “trash” nuts in Europe, it has a rich taste and a slightly bitter smell. Popular in salads.
- red palm oil: made from sources rich in carotene, which gives it a carroty/pumpkiny taste; used as a “bold” oil.
The magazine recommends mixing the oils — for example, three parts salad oil and two parts anything else. This way the salad oil dilutes the strong flavours of the other oils, such as olive oil or peanut oil!
The first thing to do is to cut the chicken. I, being terribly observant, completely missed the pre-cut thighs at the grocery store, so I had fun dealing with the slimy chicken. Be sure to cut out any odd tendon bit or bone that has been left behind — but don’t remove the skin! The skin is essential!
Once that was done, I marinated the chicken in salt, pepper, sake, ginger, and garlic (covered, in the fridge) for around 25 minutes.
After that, in went the egg and soy sauce, and then the potato starch! (I made two batches, because we had friends over.)
The magazine mentioned different oils that you can use. I decided to go for salad oil, since it’s a fairly neutral oil and doesn’t add much flavour to the food. Since we have a gas range, I used a pot with high sides, and filled it up only about 1/3 of the way.
The magazine says to heat the oil on the stove to 170C, which proved almost impossible to maintain, so we relied on sight: if the oil around the chicken immediately started to bubble, we knew it was at the right temperature!
Before we put the chicken in, I wrapped the skins around each bite of chicken:
The karaage had to go through two rounds of frying. For the first round, we put them in for a minute and a half. When they came out, they didn’t look terribly appetising:
While the first batch sat cooling, we put in a second for another minute and a half and pulled it out. Then in went the first batch again, this time for anytime between a minute and a minute and a half — basically, until it turned that signature golden-brown!
The magazine was very specific in mentioning not to use paper towels — instead, set the karaage on a wire rack to drip-dry to avoid getting bits of paper stuck to the chicken.
Once I’d cooked all the chicken, I added a few wedges of lemon, some parsley for garnish, and voilà!
Serving size: 2 (pictured above is around 4)
Karaage recipe is from Kantan Dancyu Magazine.
- 500~600 grams chicken thigh meat
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon sake
- 1/2 tablespoon grated ginger
- 1/3 teaspoon grated garlic
- freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 1 egg
- 1/2 tablespoon soy sauce
- 4~5 tablespoons potato starch
- frying oil
- wax paper
- wire rack
- Cut the chicken thighs into 5cm-pieces. Cut out any tendons or bones leftover, but leave the skin.
- Mix the chicken with salt, sake, ginger, garlic, and pepper in a large bowl. Cover it and put it in the refrigerator to marinate for 20~30 minutes. Begin to heat the oil on the stove. The ideal heat is around 170C.
- Once the chicken is done marinating, add the egg and soy sauce and mix well. Add the potato starch gradually, until the chicken is a bit gooey. Wrap the chicken pieces in the fat and divide into batches.
- Add the first batch to the oil. The oil should bubble around the chicken as soon as it’s dropped in. Fry the first batch for 1.5 minutes. Remove and set on wax paper. Fry a second batch the same way.
- Once the second batch is removed, add the first batch again for 1.5 minutes, or until the pieces are brown and crispy. Remove and set on the wire rack to drain the oil.
- Continue until finished! Garnish with lemon and parsley.
Source: Kantan Dancyu Magazine (and Paul! Thank you for translating!)