Poultry gets crisped in sizzling oil all over the world in traditions that succeed and exist independently of American fried chicken. The wild success of KFC has increased fried chicken’s popularity abroad but, in satisfying circularity, it has also led to American outposts of Guatemalan and Korean fried chicken joints that have changed the way Americans eat and think about the dish. Come with us on a breezy little tour of the fried chickens of the world.
Har Cheong Gai
Har cheong gai, or prawn-paste chicken, is the signature Singaporean style of fried chicken, found in hawker centers or as a specialty of zi char stalls serving home-style Chinese food.
The prawn paste preferred in Singapore is gray, thick, gloopy, and extremely fragrant before it is cooked. It’s thinned into a marinade with Shaoxing wine, ginger, soy sauce, sugar, and sometimes a little oyster sauce and MSG. The chicken then sits overnight in a batter made with the marinade, flour, and potato starch before being fried the next day.
“It is best eaten by itself, as there is so much umami flavor from the shrimp paste, but it’s usually served with a chili sauce,” says Singaporean-born chef Nicholas Tang, of DBGB in New York. “The best har cheong gai I’ve ever eaten is at this steamboat place called Whampoa Keng Fish Head. We compete with my dad over who can best eat the chicken, but my dad always wins. He loves it—he always eats right down to the bone.”
Robyn Eckhardt writes about food and travel in Asia and Turkey.
How many ways can you fry a chicken? In Indonesia, a country whose inhabitants are spread across some ten thousand islands (of a total of over seventeen thousand), the methods are myriad. But the city of Yogyakarta’s deluxe version of fried chicken—a twice-cooked bird that’s served mounded with spiced crispy bits—claims particularly widespread appeal. Eaten from early morning until late at night, the dish is typically part of a meal that includes white rice, lalapan (raw vegetables like sliced cucumbers and tomatoes), and a fiery sambal trassi (shrimp paste), palm sugar, and chilies pounded together.
Making ayam goreng yogya, as the dish is known beyond its hometown, requires commitment. First, there’s the bumbu (spice paste), a ground mixture of shallots, garlic, ginger, lemongrass, salt, coriander seeds, and perhaps candlenuts. Along with dark palm sugar and daun salam (often described as Indonesian bay leaf, though it is not a member of the laurel family), the bumbu is mixed with coconut (or regular) water to make a poaching liquid for the chicken. After the chicken is removed, the poaching liquid is strained to remove sediment and mixed with starch to form a pourable batter. The bird is fried and then so is the batter, in the same oil. Eaten together, the two components—tender, moist, spice-imbued chicken and crunchy spice crackles—are an extravaganza of texture, seasoning and, well, grease.
Ayam goreng yogya is said to have been invented several decades ago by one Mbok Berek, who may have been inspired by a similar version of fried chicken associated with Kalasan, a village outside the city. She began selling it from a roadside warung and then expanded to a namesake chain of ayam goreng shops. Today the dish is the main menu item at Ayam Goreng Suharti, a small fried chicken chain founded by Mbok Berek’s granddaughter. In its hometown, it remains ubiquitous.—Robyn Eckhardt
Calvin Godfrey is a writer and photographer based in Ho Chi Minh City.
In Vietnam, fried chicken gets slathered in a caramel made with nuoc mam—fish sauce, the lifeblood of the nation. The fish-sauce glaze for the chicken wings is called mam kho quet (braised “wicking” sauce) and can be eaten with fresh or steamed vegetables, but it takes on an otherworldliness when applied to chicken, particularly wings.
The first time I encountered the dish was at the very end of my first year in Vietnam. I planned to go home and forget about the country when my girlfriend invited me to dinner at her mom’s house. Her mother, originally from the northern city of Nam Dinh, had prepared her signature sticky rice and fish-sauce-glazed chicken wings. The meal hooked me. I couldn’t speak any Vietnamese then, so I just smiled and ate lots of wings. I later moved in to that house, and those wings became a major part of my life, as did the family. I’ve looked for a commercial place that does an equally excellent version of the dish and have never really found it.
Naturally, however, there’s more than one way to fry a chicken in Vietnam. Sometimes chicken is scored and briefly marinated in fish sauce and shallots and given a sprinkle of bot nem (a powder of spices, salt, and MSG) before it is fried; this is not a bad thing. This style often appears on the menu at quan nhau places (sidewalk drinking spots), but it’s usually subpar. There’s a highly overrated restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City called Com Ga Xoi Mo Su Su, where a man has jury-rigged a fat fryer into a grease waterfall, in which he fries chicken. In my opinion, none of these offerings hold a candle to a plate of canh ga chien nuoc mam and sticky rice eaten at home.—Calvin Godfrey
Andy Ricker is the chef and owner of the Pok Pok restaurants in Portland, New York, and LA.
Fried chicken is not a complicated or fancy dish in Thailand. It’s something you find on the streets everywhere. Every city has a fried chicken specialist, and there are as many ways to fry chicken as there are vendors. But there are several common iterations. Gai tod hat yai is a deep-fried chicken from the south made with a red, spicy batter that contains either red chili or red curry paste. Gai tod kamin—chicken fried with turmeric—is another style of southern fried chicken. It’s typically marinated in MSG, turmeric, and other seasonings. They fry the chicken with lots of shallots and garlic and serve the chicken piled high with the crisp-fried aromatics. There are also people who don’t do anything to the chicken. No batter, dredge, nothing—they might cut and dry it for a while first, and then it goes straight into the oil. There’s a guy in Nan Province who takes a whole chicken, rubs it with salt and makhwaen, a type of prickly ash, and then fries the whole bird.
Unless you’re in a fast-food restaurant (KFC is the most popular one in the country), almost all fried chicken is cooked in palm oil in a large, thick bottomed aluminum or steel wok at around 300 degrees.
My favorite place for fried chicken is Midnight Fried Chicken in Chiang Mai. It’s where you go after the bars and nightclubs close—it opens at about 10:30 p.m. and stays open until 4:30 a.m. They fry more than just chicken—they do pork belly, fish, intestines—but the chicken is what they’re known for. There’s a super crispy crust that they accomplish with a very thin batter, and they fry the hell out of the chicken in this super-black oil. The secret to the batter is the use of nam poon sai, or slaked-lime water. It’s used often in batters in Thai cooking because the added alkalinity makes stuff really crispy.
I like to order chicken nam prik there, which means it comes with various chili pastes: nam prik ta-dang, which is a very hot chili paste, and nam prik noom, which is a green chili paste. Typically I’ll get some pieces of fried chicken, one of the nam prik, some boiled eggs, maybe some deep-fried dried pork or beef, and some sticky rice.
When you roll up there, be warned: they’re not friendly or hospitable. A few years back, when a customer gave the owner shit for not opening early enough, he went in the back, grabbed a gun, and shot the guy. He went to jail, but now everybody knows not to mess with the counter guys ever again.—Andy Ricker
Kerala Fried Chicken
Asha Gomez is the chef of Spice to Table in Atlanta.
I grew up eating fried chicken in Kerala, which is a region at the southernmost tip of India, kind of nestled between the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. In South India, we actually do a lot of meat-forward dishes, so you’ll tend to see fried chicken there more than other areas, especially in the north of India, where the vast majority of people are vegetarians due to religious affiliation. I was raised Roman Catholic, so we’d go to mass and then come back home and eat fried chicken for lunch or dinner, just like in the American South.
There are two variations of fried chicken I love eating in Kerala. My mom’s is similar to fried chicken in the American South in that it’s marinated, dredged in flour, and deep-fried. My mom would blend together buttermilk, ginger, garlic, cilantro, mint, and green chili, and then marinate the chicken for twenty-four hours. Once it came out, she’d dredge it in flour and a garam masala spice blend. In my mother’s kitchen, we’d deep-fry it in coconut oil, but in the States, I fry in vegetable oil and drizzle coconut oil over the top, because coconut oil is expensive here.
In the coastal areas, every household makes this kind of chicken. There’s another dish that’s called kozhi porichathu, which is served at thattukada, or roadside stands. The roadside guys open their shops past ten p.m., so it’s strictly for truck drivers. The chicken is marinated with chilies and whole cloves of garlic that are crushed up with the skin on. There’s no flour involved.
It’s then deep-fried in coconut oil with ginger and the garlic, and served topped with all of the aromatics. It’s served on top of malabar parotta, which is a type of bread from the region. They wrap it up in a banana leaf and newspaper and give it to you. Whenever I return to my motherland, my family knows to come to the airport with a package of it. My youth comes flooding back to me; I’m right back in the tenth grade, sneaking out to eat this chicken with my friends.—Asha Gomez
Garlic chicken, chili chicken, chicken 65, and chicken lollipops all fall under the category of Indian-Chinese cuisine that originated in Calcutta during the eighteenth century. Indo-Chinese cuisine would eventually make its way to Mumbai, where a chef would invent chicken Manchurian. Cubes of chicken are coated in cornstarch and egg, deep-fried, then tossed in a sauce made with onions, chilies, garlic, soy sauce, and vinegar. The dish has spawned any number of spin-off fried chicken dishes in the same family line; sometimes the sauce contains ketchup, sometimes MSG. Many of the dishes contain Indian flavors in the form of garam masala and hearty garnishes of fresh cilantro leaves.
One popular iteration is the chicken lollipop, where the meat is frenched from the bone of either a wing or a drumette, marinated in garlic paste, chili paste, soy sauce, vinegar, and occasionally spices suchas cumin, garam masala, and coriander, then breaded in flour or cornstarch, and deepfried. Chicken lollipops are usually served as an appetizer at Chinese restaurants in India.
There are many origin stories about how chicken 65 got its name. Some claim that the chicken must be sixty-five days old to achieve optimal flavor; one legend has it that the original recipe had sixty-five ingredients; another holds that it takes sixty-five tries to get the dish right. Reading the Internet makes me want to put my money behind the idea that the dish was invented in 1965, either in military kitchens during the Indo-Pakistani War or at a hotel called Buhari in the city of Chennai, in southeast India, where the dish is most popular.
In any case, chicken 65 is delicious: thighs are chopped into pieces and marinated in some combination of MSG, Kashmiri chili powder, coriander, ginger-garlic paste, salt, and pepper. The pieces are coated in rice flour, cornstarch, or potato starch, dusted with more of the chili powder, and fried. Afterward, the pieces of fried chicken are sautéed in a spiced yogurt sauce made with green chili, cumin seeds, coriander, Kashmiri chili powder, curry leaves, ginger, and garlic.
La Zi Ji
La zi ji—chicken with chilies—is a specialty from the city of Chongqing, adjacent to Sichuan Province. Bone-in chicken is chopped into bite-size pieces, marinatedin soy sauce, sugar, Shaoxing wine, ginger,and salt, and then deep-fried. The pile of chicken pieces are quickly stir-fried with tons of dried red chilies, garlic, and Sichuan peppercorns. The chilies are so numerous that, at the table, one needs to pick through the mountain of them, hunting for pieces of meat. (It is an amateur mistake to try to eat the chilies; they’re there for aroma and garnish and flare—not sustenance.)
Zha Zi Ji
The Cleaver Quarterly features long-form writing that covers Chinese food as a global phenomenon, in both print and online.
Cantonese fried chicken (zha zi ji) has no use for batter. Like its northern cousin, Peking duck, it showcases a shatteringly crisp skin. The cooking process begins with the chicken being poached or steamed to infuse the meat with the flavors of scallion, ginger, Sichuan pepper, star anise, cinnamon, and fennel. Next, the skin is brushed with a maltose-vinegar glaze and left to dry overnight. Lastly, the bird is submerged in hot oil until the skin caramelizes into a red-gold glossy crunch, then served immediately.
For the sake of spectacle, the crisped chicken is occasionally presented whole—deep-fried cockscomb and all—but most diners expect a platter piled high with neatly hacked chunks, garnished with puffy curled shrimp crackers and a zesty pepper-salt for dipping.
Because the integrity of the skin requires that the bird remain whole through the deep-frying process, restaurants don’t sell them piecemeal. You order a whole bird or nothing at all. Zha zi ji also happens to be Cantonese slang for any pop star who’s on a hot streak. Apparently there’s no better symbol for peak popularity than crispy fried chicken. Hard to argue with that.—The Cleaver Quarterly
Yan Su Ji
Cathy Erway is the author of The Food of Taiwan and The Art of Eating In.
Much of Taiwan’s street-food culture originated with food carts that lined up outside of temples so that worshippers could grab a bite after praying. One of the creations from that cart culture is now the signature fried chicken of the country: crunchy fried chicken with basil leaves. To make the dish, small pieces of chicken are marinated in a hearty amount of “fried salt and pepper chicken powder” (炸盐酥鸡粉), a condiment that’s a mix of finely ground salt, white pepper, and five-spice powder. Garlic is usually added to the marinade, and a sweet-potato-flour dredge gives the chicken its signature super crunchy, crackly crust. This is typical street food, and it’s often served in a paper bag steaming hot from the fryer, garnished with crisp and aromatic fried basil leaves.—Cathy Erway
Conbini (Convenience Store) Chicken
Kee Byung-keun is a Korean-American writer living in Japan.
Let’s just dispense with the obvious: Lawson has the best convenience-store fried chicken in Japan. First and foremost, it registers like it is really made from a chicken (as much as popcorn-sized bites of any animal can taste like itself). Secondly, its coating displays actual crispness. It’s juicy without being greasy. It can be enjoyed in different flavors, like red pepper or cheese. And it comes in a cute little sleeve that fits perfectly in your hand while you cruise between Shibuya bars drunk out of your mind. With 7-Eleven or FamilyMart’s chicken, you won’t be so happy, even if you are equally intoxicated.
The shop closest to my apartment—and therefore the one subject to most of my poor late-night purchasing decisions—is a 7-Eleven. The crust is too rubbery on the outside and too greasy on the inside. I still leer at it every night as something viable, knowing full well that my hope will be transmuted to grief the second it is in my hand. The appeal is morbid.
But it’s FamilyMart that offers me the greatest consternation. On a recent lunch break, I was sitting down to a conbini smorgasbord of rice balls, fried chicken, and bottled tea, but when I bit into the chicken, hot juice burst into my mouth and onto my hand. I pulled away and saw that my chicken was literally dripping with liquid. I was horrified. Was it fat? Was it meat juice? Did it even matter? Why was there so much of it?! I had no napkins, so in order to contain the mess, I thrust the chicken back into my mouth and sucked it down. More liquid dripped from the edges of my mouth. I felt sadness and despair, but mostly I just wished there were a Lawson nearby.—Kee Byung-keun
Kara-age (literally “tang fried”) employs a Chinese-influenced method of frying that dates back to sometime before the eighteenth century. It specifically refers to dredging whatever you’re frying in potato starch (or a mixture of potato starch and flour) to get a crisp, paper-thin skin.
Tatsuta-age is the most common type of kara-age, where bite-size pieces of chicken are marinated in soy sauce, sake, and ginger, dunked in potato starch, then fried. Sometimes, whole thighs are used instead—a rarity sometimes referred to as “big kara-age,” or by another name entirely, sanzoku-yaki. Wings can also be fried, but this is not considered kara-age; they are instead called tebasaki. My favorite way to eat kara-age is also maybe the trashiest—bowls of ramen topped with it. In Tokyo, there is this one place called Gachi that sells a tsukemen ramen topped with a whole fried thigh. Umakara Ramen Hyori does a gargantuan spicy tonkotsu, also topped with a thigh. And Kichijoji Donburi serves gonzo rice bowls, and the basic one comes with six fist-sized pieces of kara-age and way too much tartar sauce. Most people add extra kara-age, because if you’re going to die you might as well die right.—Kee Byung-keun
Toriten is tempura chicken that originated in the early sixties in Oita Prefecture, and this is still where you’ll most often find it, at street-side stands and in restaurants. The marinade for the chicken is nearly identical to kara-age, but toriten is battered à la tempura in a mixture of ice cold water,egg, and flour. Any part of the chicken can be cut into small pieces and used. Preferences about crispiness differ—some people don’t mind letting the juices from the chicken soak through and dampen the outer layer. Those who prefer a crispier breading will double-fry the toriten. The chicken is served with ponzu, which, in its simplest form, is soy sauce cut with a sour citrus juice, like that of the daidai, a fruit similar to a Seville orange.
Corey Lee is the chef of Benu and In Situ in San Francisco.
To me there are two different kinds of Korean fried chicken. First there’s tongdak, which is the original fried chicken. It’s traditionally dredged in sweetly seasoned rice flour, but other than that it’s just plain fried chicken, served with radish pickles.
The newer version—the very, verycrisp double-fried wings, often lacquered in some kind of sauce—started to proliferate in Seoul in the early nineties. Back then I’d go to Korea every summer, and on one trip my grandmother—who did not speak a lick of English—asked me if I wanted to go get some “chik-kin,” because it was the cool new thing. Now it’s spread around the world with chains like Bonchon and Kyo-Chon. As “Korean” as it is, to me, it’s really a product of fusion. It’s the combination of two Asian cultures—Korean flavors and Chinese cooking technique.
The multistep process-—cooking the wings, cooling them, then frying them in hot oil—is certainly something you find in Chinese cooking. One of the most exceptional chicken wings I’ve ever had was at Celebrity Cuisine in Hong Kong, where they cooked the wings, cooled them, stuffed them with bird’s nest, and thendeep-fried them. All the moisture trying toescape the bird’s nest puffed up like crazy, and the skin crisped like Peking duck in the deep-fryer.
Though the Chinese will often put awhole chicken through the same technique, it’s really ideal for chicken wings because of the way the skin completely encapsulates the meat. On the second pass, the steam trapped inside the jacket of skin will keep the meat moist and the fat will render out, ideally leaving nothing to the skin but crisp crunch. (I’ll note that the first cooking doesn’t need to be in a deepfryer, but if you have one going, there’s no reason you wouldn’t use it.)
After the wings get fried, they get glazed, and that’s what most people think of as Korean fried chicken today. They’re for eating on a night out, while drinking. Tongdak, simple fried chicken, is the sort of thing you might eat with whatever banchan you have lying around at home.—Corey Lee
Chinelo Onwualu is a writer and editor living in Abuja, Nigeria.
Fried chicken is well known in Nigeria today, but this wasn’t always the case. While it was sometimes part of a big Sunday family dinner, it has never held the same status as other dishes, like jollof rice. It began rising in the country’s collective regard in the nineties through the fast-food outlets styled after Kentucky Fried Chicken—Tastee Fried Chicken and Mr. Bigg’s are two chains common in big cities around Nigeria and Africa, respectively. The chickens are typically marinated in Maggi seasoning, bay leaves, and yaji (a traditional spice mix of black,white, and red peppercorns, salt, ginger, clove, and dried chilies) before being dredged and fried. Fried chicken is widely considered an expensive treat, much like pizza or ice cream, and not to be consumed regularly.—Chinelo Onwualu
Kenyan Chicken and Chips
Sandra Zhao writes about food and bakes cupcakes in Nairobi, Kenya.
Chicken Inn, Maryland Chicken, McFrys, Chicken Roost, Nyammy Chicken Inn: all of these are restaurants in Nairobi where you can pop in and walk out five minutes later with a worryingly thin plastic bag filled with steaming-hot fried chicken and chips.Most of these restaurants are simply corridors: cashier and fryer on one side, a long, narrow counter with stools opposite it. There’s often a wall-to-wall mirror where you can watch yourself and your neighbors as you collectively scarf. Saltshakers abound, malt vinegar is common, and there are almost always bottles of Peptang tomato sauce (a neon-red cousin of Heinz) and Peptang hot and sweet sauce (a distant relative of an imitation of a chili). You might find an actual bottle of Heinz, though usually it’s watered down or filled with Peptang.
For a non-fried but equally popular chicken experience, there’s kuku choma.The chicken is slathered in oil and thrown on the grill until it’s charred and the skin is crisp. Stop by any choma joint—identifiable by the window of meat hanging on hooks—and take a seat. Someone will come by with a water pitcher and soap for you to wash your hands, and the chicken will soon follow on a wooden board along with a little pile of salt, ugali (steamed ground maize), and kachumbari (chopped tomatoes and onions, seasoned with lime juice and sometimes cilantro).
You can find both chicken and chips and kuku choma joints across the country; in cities they’re popular among the middle class for lunch or a late-night bite. In more rural areas, chicken is a special meal, and chicken and chips or kuku choma might be a celebratory outing with family or friends.—Sandra Zhao
Pollo Fritto alla Toscana
Tuscan fried chicken comes from a centuries-old Jewish custom, wherein it’s served for Hanukkah. As is true of nearly everything food related, preparations vary by region and even from town to town. Generally speaking, the chicken is marinated in lemon juice, garlic, thyme, and nutmeg, then coated in egg, dredged in flour, and fried in olive oil. It’s served topped with fried herbs, like sage and oregano, and fried artichoke hearts. (Sometimes, cut-up chicken is fried right along with the artichokes.)
Despite its name, chicken Kiev has its roots in France, where in the 1840s, chefs to the Russian royalty traveled for inspiration and saw a version of the dish being made with veal. They returned home and started making it with chicken, which was cheaper and easier to find. They called the imported dish “Mikhailovska cutlet,” and it was served in fancy dining rooms. In the U.S., when influxes of immigrants from the Soviet Union arrived, New York restaurants like the Russian Tea Room began serving the dish with a new name: chicken Kiev. American tourists in the former USSR started requesting it, which led to its increased popularity there. And now it’s become largely passé everywhere.
In the classic dish, a chicken cutlet is pounded down, coated in egg and bread crumbs, rolled up around a filling of butter and herbs, and pan-fried. American versions of the dish call for garlic and parsley, and Russian versions call for cheese. Some chefs in Ukraine insist on using only butter.
The breaded chicken cutlet—most often a piece of breast meat pounded thin and fried after a trip through some kind of egg-flour-bread dredge—pops up as a diet destroyer in so many places around the world, it feels wrong to assign it a particular provenance.
My mind travels first to Eastern Europe, to schnitzel country, the place where the Danube flows. I know veal and pork are the first meats of schnitzel, but the schnitzeling of a chicken is a worthy way to turn cottony meat into velvet. The magic of the schnitzel is forged in a crucible of butter: cooked in a bath of it, the chef spooning it over the cutlet in a golden cascade until the crust is crisped but tender and rich, the same as the meat within. Sour cucumber salads and a wedge of lemon might be nearby to lend it some acid. They will be aided, abetted, and made better by the assist of a beguiling white wine with a word like scheurebe scrawled across the bottle.
Up in Poland matzo meal might be the breading element; the same could be said for some of the schnitzel you’d find in Israel, but bread crumbs are common just about everywhere. I’ve heard tell of Yemeni schnitzel seasoned with hawayij—a blend of black pepper, caraway, saffron, cardamom, and turmeric—but never had the pleasure of eating it.
If we head west, we can plan a stopover in Milan for cotoletta alla milanese. Much like in schnitzel country, pigs and baby cows are more likely to have their flesh mallet-tenderized and cooked in butter than chickens, but any beast who befalls that delicious fate will find a bit of parmesan cheese brought to the party, and maybe the earthy kiss of sage in the butter. More importantly, perhaps, than the fried meat itself is the way the name of the city attached itself to fried chicken cutlets in points far southwest.
In many of the Spanish-speaking parts of the Americas, ordering a milanesa de pollo will get you some manner of pounded and fried chicken. Limes will supplant lemons in the acid department. In Mexico, a milanesa can end up anywhere a cook puts it—on a plate with rice and beans and the like—but the most classic way to have it is in a fried chicken sandwich, or torta de milanesa. They are sold in tortarias all over Mexico, but they originated in the city of Puebla, where there are whole marketplaces devoted to the sandwich. There, the cutlet gets sandwiched in a cemita, a dense, slightly sweet, brioche-like seeded roll. The sandwich is dressed with black-bean paste, Oaxacan cheese, avocado, chilies in adobo, lettuce, and perhaps a sprinkling of fresh herbs. Pápalo is one of the herbs; whenever I eat it I make a face like a cat licking a freshly Windexed window, but somehow it works in the torta, giving it that however you say je ne sais quoi in Spanish.
Alex Raij, the chef of a spate of Spanish restaurants in New York City (including the Michelin-starred La Vara), said her favorite dish growing up was the milanesa de pollo a la napolitana. She calls it “a next-level chicken parm”: a cutlet is breaded and fried, and then baked with cheese and tomato. It’s popular both in restaurants and in home cooking in Argentina, she told us, and is frequently served to children.
In the United States, we put fried chicken on salad—I remember my surprise in learning that Caesar salads don’t always come with a fingers-on option—but if there is a cutlet that reigns supreme in the land of the red, white, and blue, well, it might be hard to say which it is. In the South, it’s going in a soft bun a quarter of its size, maybe with some pickles. In the middle of the country, that fried chicken might get smothered in gravy and set up with some mashed potatoes and peas. But in many places it’s gonna meet up with mozzarella and tomato sauce and go great with a Scorsese movie. Usually we call that a “chicken parm,” but its lineage almost certainly tracks to southern Italy, not Parma.
Let’s end this tour of flat-fried chickens in the land of the rising sun, where we must tip our hats to chicken katsu, fried chicken cutlets breaded in jackets of jaggedly crisp panko crumbs. While there are probably as many ways to eat chicken katsu as there are ways to dress up for a Sailor Moon cosplay party, the one that seems the most quintessentially Japanese to me is chicken curry katsu—a pile of white rice topped with a thinly sliced, crispy fried cutlet that is ensconced in a tar-pit-thick spill of deep brown and slightly sweet Japanese curry. There will be raw cabbage to add crunch, there will be beer to wash it down, and there will be heartburn to follow.—Peter Meehan
Pollo Campero, a Central American fast-food-chicken restaurant, opened in 1971 in Guatemala City. Today, there are over three hundred locations worldwide, including more than sixty-five U.S. outposts. While Pollo Campero’s recipe is one of those closely guarded corporate secrets, its flavor recalls orange juice, annatto paste, garlic powder, and bay leaf. The crust is made with flour and bread crumbs, which renders the chicken perfectly crispy and juicy without being greasy. It’s a solid fast-food-variety fried chicken, and the empanadas and fried plantains you can get alongside are welcome accompaniments.
The name means “little thigh,” but coxinhas are actually croquettes of shredded chicken enveloped in dough that’s formed into the shape of a chicken thigh, breaded, and fried. “Coxinha is also a nickname for people who dress really posh but actually have no class whatsoever, and who would never eat coxinha because they’d consider it peasant food,” says chef Alberto Landgraf of the late Michelin-starred Epice in São Paulo.
As legend goes, this dish was invented in the late nineteenth century for one of Princess Isabel’s sons. This son had very particular eating habits, and would eat only chicken thighs. One day the cook was out of thighs, but had some leftover meat from a feast the night before. To stretch what she had, she wrapped the meat in dough, breaded it, and fried it. The prince loved it, and the dish grew in fame throughout the village, and eventually the country. “The base of the dough changes, varying from potatoes to just plain flour, and— the best one for me—manioc [cassava],” Landgraf says. “Once, some of my cooks went to a dodgy boteco (casual Brazilian drink-and-snack spot) late after service, and one of them asked for a coxinha. After biting into it, he said it tasted sour, so he asked the server if the cooks had put lemon zest in the dough, and the server said, ‘Lemon zest? What the fuck is that? It’s probably just off because it’s been sitting out since yesterday morning.’”
Frango à Passarinho
Frango à passarinho is a tapas-style dish that you’ll find at botecos in the southern and southeastern parts of the country. It’s served with cold beer. “It’s called ‘à passarinho’ (little bird) because the chicken is chopped into small pieces that resemble the small birds eaten in the countryside,” says Landgraf. The dish can be made with chicken wings or with a whole chicken that’s diced up, bones and all. Either way, the pieces are marinated in lime, salt, and garlic, sometimes breaded in flour, and then fried. The finished dish gets topped with lots of chopped garlic and occasionally chopped herbs like parsley. Landgraf says some of the best versions of frango à passarinho can be found at Japanese izakayas around Brazil, and says he likes to specially request pieces with more skin and fat attached to them.
United States of America
Southern Fried Chicken
In the South, everyone’s mother has a slightly different recipe for fried chicken, and all of them make it best. All aspects of the cooking process are up for debate, but generally, the chicken is cut into frying pieces at the bone (thigh, drumstick, wing, breast), soaked in buttermilk, dredged in flour mixed with seasonings (these vary, but pepper, garlic powder, paprika, and cayenne are all common), and deep-fried, most commonly in lard or peanut oil.
Fried chicken in America exists at the intersection of European and West African tradition. “Chickens were fried at some point in England, and the notion of fried chicken would have come from the English settlers. Then there is a certain kind of African mastery of frying in deep oil, and I think the two intersected in a kind of way,” says Dr. Jessica Harris, a food scholar and professor at Queens College, CUNY, and the author of numerous books on the food of the African diaspora. In early America, chicken was a fancy dish; wealthy white plantation owners ate it, and likely used recipes for fricassee—a dish of braised chicken—influenced by European tradition. “Chicken would have been a once-a-year occurrence, if even that, during the time of enslavement,” Harris says. African slaves were the ones doing the cooking on plantations, and since they, too, had a fried chicken tradition, they undoubtedly borrowed from their own background.
The advancement of the railroad system in the late nineteenth century encouraged the growth of the chicken industry, and the number of chickens in America more than doubled. “What happens in the African-American world once chicken becomes more widespread and cheap—though this isn’t monolithic—is you get people who are using fried chicken to create, if not wealth, then at least income,” Harris says. “You’ve got those chicken ladies Psyche Williams-Forson writes about so eloquently in Building Houses out of Chicken Legs, who are selling fried chicken to passengers in railroad stations, which serves as a kind of early example of fast-food fried chicken. It’s here that you get the whole notion of fried chicken as an expertise of African Americans, that is then used for entrepreneurship.”
Kentucky Fried Chicken
Harland Sanders was a middle-school dropout and a veteran from Indiana. In the 1930s, he opened a restaurant in the service station he operated, selling Southern food like fried chicken. After a successful two decades, he franchised Kentucky Fried Chicken to a man from Salt Lake City named Peter Harman. Sanders closed his original restaurant three years later when the construction of a new highway diverted traffic away from his service station. He spent the rest of his life visiting KFC locations across the country. KFC has grown quickly abroad, especially in China, where the company has over five thousand restaurants.
Everyone talks about KFC’s original recipe, but what’s actually crucial to the product—and fast-food fried chicken in general—is the pressure fryer. If it sounds dangerous, it’s because it is, but the process of pressure frying allowed fried chicken to cook quickly and efficiently. A commercially viable pressure fryer wasn’t invented until 1957, and now, fast-food restaurants use a safer, more finely tuned version of the original machine.
In a now-famous 1980 New Yorker article, Calvin Trillin investigates whether Anchor Bar, in Buffalo, New York, is indeed the ancestral home of the buffalo wing, as everyone, including the residents of Buffalo, proclaim them to be. Teressa Bellissimo, chef and co-owner of Anchor Bar, first made the wing in the 1960s either as a way to use a mistaken shipment of wings (the restaurant traditionally received necks and backs, which were used for the spaghetti sauce) or to please a group of big-spending customers— stories vary. And in the end, Trillin isn’t convinced that the Anchor Bar can be credited for deep-fried chicken wings, considering that black people have been eating them for centuries.
Regardless of its origin, the wing became tremendously popular, and soon made its way onto the Anchor Bar’s regular menu, and menus all over town. Now it’s served at bars all over the country, where the wings are covered in Frank’s hot sauce (often mixed with a load of melted butter) and served with celery and blue-cheese dipping sauce.
Fried Chicken and Waffles
In its most popular form, chicken and waffles consists of bone-in fried chicken served with a waffle, syrup, and Tabasco sauce. However, the true origins of chicken and waffles are difficult to discern, as John T. Edge notes in his book Fried Chicken: An American Story. The dish is variously credited to Roscoe’s, a restaurant in Los Angeles, Wells Supper Club in Harlem, and home cooks in the South. The most widely circulated story is that the dish is linked to the 1930s Harlem Renaissance, when musicians and artists would frequent Wells Supper Club, the twenty-four-hour restaurant that served breakfast, lunch, and dinner. “It’s the coming together of the early-morning breakfast and the late-night dinner,” Harris says. Wells offered its chicken during the breakfast service that began at midnight, where it shared a menu with breakfast staples like waffles.
Nashville Hot Chicken
Nashville hot chicken was famously invented in the restaurant Prince’s in Nashville in the 1930s. The irresistible but apocryphal legend is that the dish was conceived as punishment for infidelity: after realizing her boyfriend was out late philandering, Thornton Prince’s unnamed girlfriend attempted to burn his mouth off by dumping copious amounts of spice in his Sunday morning chicken. The plan backfired, as Prince loved the chicken and perfected the recipe for his eventual restaurant. Prince’s still serves hot chicken, and it’s still family run. In the past decade or so, the dish’s popularity has taken off: KFC has added it to their menus, and restaurants like Hattie B’s have gone into business as hot chicken specialists.
To make hot chicken, the bird is quartered or cut into pieces at the bone, like Southern fried chicken, dry-brined in salt and pepper, and fried with the bone in. After frying, it is sauced in a searing mixture of cayenne, garlic powder, paprika, and oil or lard. The chicken is served on top of a piece of white bread, which soaks up the drippings and provides a promise of relief from the heat. But, especially when you attempt anything more than mild Nashville hot chicken, there is no relief to be found—just psychedelically spicy chicken-fried pain.
General Tso’s Chicken
General Tso (actual name: Zuo Zongtang) was a real historical figure, but he did not invent the miracle chicken. Zuo was a famous military leader who died in 1885, but the chicken that was named after him was not invented until the 1950s. The real inventor of the dish is Peng Chang-kuei. After the Chinese civil war, Peng moved to Taiwan with the leaders of the defeated Nationalist Party. He’d studied under the famous chef for the party, Cao Jingchen, and eventually became the head chef for the Nationalist Party banquets.
In the early seventies, Peng moved to New York City and brought an early iteration of what would become General Tso’s chicken with him when he opened a restaurant on Fourth Street in New York City. The original version of General Tso’s did not contain sugar and was more traditionally Hunanese in flavor. Sugar was eventually added to appease the American palate, and its popularity took off across the country. Modern versions now consist of cubed pieces of meat that are coated in egg, starch, and soy sauce, then fried in peanut oil. They get tossed with fried garlic, ginger, chilies, and an ooey-gooey sauce of cornstarch, tomato paste, vinegar, soy sauce, and sugar.
Peng brought the dish with him when he moved back to his hometown of Changsha, the capital of Hunan Province, and opened a restaurant with it on the menu. But while it’s eaten all over the world, General Tso’s chicken remains mostly unknown in the area, according to Fuchsia Dunlop’s Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook.