Taiwanese Fried Chicken Meets the Moment – The New York Times
As crispy chicken soars in popularity, Taiwanese American chefs are reimagining the street-food classic.
Five-spice-seasoned popcorn chicken has been a beloved street snack in Taiwan for decades. Some chefs offer more traditional versions of the dish, like the Chick Bits at Java Saga in Atlanta, alongside creative interpretations.Credit…Andrew Lee for The New York Times
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Growing up, the chef David Kuo and his brothers played video games in a converted garage in the family’s backyard in West Covina, Calif. Just outside, luffa gourds, garlic chives, sweet potato leaves and other crops beloved in Taiwan grew in his grandmother’s vegetable garden.
Yet Mr. Kuo’s father would often come home late from work with a bucket of Church’s fried chicken, and they would dig in as they wrestled pixelated figures on the screen.
The bony pieces were unlike the styles of fried chicken Mr. Kuo encountered at street vendor stalls on family visits to Taiwan: yan su ji, boneless popcorn chicken strewn with fried basil leaves, and da ji pai, butterflied boneless breast cutlets. Marinated in soy sauce, rice wine, often garlic and always five-spice powder, then coated with coarse sweet potato starch, fried and finished with a dusting of white pepper, Taiwanese fried chicken is typically served in paper bags, without any sauce, for easy on-the-go snacking.
At Mr. Kuo’s Los Angeles restaurant, Little Fatty, the poultry on the menu feels familiar, yet distinctive. In a nod to his Taiwanese roots, his American childhood and his fine-dining background, Mr. Kuo sells small, bone-in pieces of popcorn quail topped with fried basil, with spicy mayo for dipping.
“It symbolizes Taiwanese cuisine, obviously, but for me, it brings back memories,” he said. “Eating something with bones in front of the TV was the ultimate fun.”
Interest in Taiwanese cooking is surging in the United States, with cookbooks that chronicle the cuisine dotting the horizon and new shops and pop-ups opening left and right. A cultural tentpole, Taiwanese fried chicken is finding a wider audience of diners and selling out at restaurants in the process. The crispy, aromatic chicken, which often can be found popcorn-style at boba shops in the United States, is gaining its foothold in the American culinary landscape amid a fried-chicken fervor: Fast-food chains battle for the title of best crispy chicken sandwich. Korean fried chicken chains dot college campuses. Indian fried chicken sandwiches draw crowds and inspire spirited reviews in New York City.
Mr. Kuo is among a generation of Taiwanese American chefs who are molding this night-market fixture to fit their own upbringings and tastes. They’re tucking Taiwanese fried chicken into sandwiches and steamed buns, serving it atop sliced white bread with pickles and drenching it with sauces in acknowledgment of regional American specialties and their life experiences.
At Java Saga in Atlanta, Alvin Sun serves four different Taiwanese fried chicken sandwiches, the most popular of which is the A.B.C.: Southern-style coleslaw, sweet pickles, jalapeño-American cheese and habanero-mango sauce atop what he calls his Taiwan No. 1 fried chicken cutlet. Customers love it, whether or not they have any concept of what Taiwanese fried chicken should be.
“As long as they have an interest in trying it, they do seem to like it,” Mr. Sun said.
When he opened his restaurant in 2020, Mr. Sun was obsessed with Nashville hot chicken, sampling varieties from chains like Hattie B’s and Gus’s and watching videos on how to prepare it. Inspired by the regional specialty, Java Saga also serves a version of the No. 1 cutlet slathered in a cayenne-based “lava” sauce atop a slice of brown-sugar milk toast and sweet pickles.
“It’s not something you can find in Taiwan,” he said, “and some of our customers say ‘Taiwan doesn’t have this — but this is really good.’”
For purists, he still offers straightforward dark-meat nuggets and a breast-meat cutlet, in the styles of yan su ji and da ji pai.
Java Saga’s chicken recipe is well traveled and closely guarded: Mr. Sun adapted it from the one his mother and kitchen collaborator, Amy Lee, used to prepare hundreds of pounds of yan su ji for Atlanta’s Lunar New Year festival when he was in middle school. She, in turn, had adapted the recipe from a friend who owned a fried chicken business in Taichung, Taiwan.
It may be tempting to conclude that Taiwanese fried chicken evolved from Japanese fried chicken styles like karaage and katsu, given Japan’s colonization of Taiwan from 1895 to 1945. But Taiwanese fried chicken’s history is quite contemporary, said Katy Hui-wen Hung, a co-author of “A Culinary History of Taipei.”
Yan su ji dates back to the night markets of the 1970s, around the time the Taiwanese chain TKK Fried Chicken, modeled after Southern-style chicken joints, was founded. As fried chicken’s prominence in the country’s urban dining scene grew in the 1980s, American chains like KFC proliferated across Taiwan. Da ji pai didn’t become a popular street food until the 1990s.
“Spaghetti, fried chicken and pizza were the sort of things that young Taiwanese people go out for, like a treat,” Ms. Hung said.
Traditionally, Taiwanese fried chicken is not dipped in a wet batter, and according to some Taiwanese American chefs, it’s not Taiwanese fried chicken if it’s not lightly coated with sweet-potato starch, which creates an irresistibly crackly crust. And signature to the popcorn chicken style are those deeply jade crystalline shards of fried basil that garnish the bite-size pieces.
Many of today’s Taiwanese American chefs are eager to individualize their yan su ji and dai ji pan while evoking nostalgia for the classics. Eric Sze, the chef and an owner of 886 and WenWen in New York City, does so in a few ways.
There’s the popcorn chicken drenched in a hot-honey glaze at both restaurants, and the Notorious T.F.C. sandwich at 886: a da ji pai-style breast on a toasted sesame seed bun (inspired by the 2000 debut of a fried chicken sandwich at a Taipei McDonald’s) with pickled daikon and carrot (a hat tip to a vegetable condiment at the Vietnamese restaurant Madame Vo, in the East Village of Manhattan), and a housemade sea mountain sauce (a tomato-y condiment served with oyster omelets in Taiwan).
And then there’s the B.D.S.M. (brined, deboned, soy milk) fried chicken at WenWen, which opened in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood in March. The elaborate sharing plate defies convention: It’s a whole young hen with its feet intact, dredged in an airy, wet batter of whipped silken tofu, soy milk and sweet potato starch that forms a brittle, light crust. The deep-fried bird is sliced into crispy strips for easy eating.
Mr. Sze says living in New York City has provided him endless inspiration for reimagining classics.
“To see the boundarylessness of cuisines and just kind of unapologetically stealing from other cultures — that’s what’s done around the world,” Mr. Sze said.
If anyone at his restaurants is complaining about the interpretation, it may be because they can’t get enough of it. The dish consistently sells out before 6 p.m.
Other chefs are riffing on Taiwanese fried chicken while incorporating influences from beyond the island and the United States. Before his grandfather died in 2009, Erik Bruner-Yang spent a lot of time in Taiwan visiting him, deciding then that he would become a chef.
“I’m in my early 20s and I realize, I’m half-Asian and a military brat, and I had this weird self crisis,” Mr. Bruner-Yang said. “What part of my culture is important to me? I began using cooking as a way to figure it out.”
At Maketto, his restaurant and cafe in Washington, D.C., Mr. Bruner-Yang wanted to reflect his background and his wife’s Cambodian heritage throughout the menu. Fish sauce is added to the five-spice-infused mala caramel that liberally coats a large piece of fried, butterflied chicken breast. The dish is served with toasted points of white bread in homage to the restaurant’s former neighbor, the revered fish fry Horace & Dickie’s.
“At first the dish was called Taiwanese fried chicken,” Mr. Bruner-Yang said. “Now it’s just called Maketto fried chicken.”
This moment is especially meaningful to chefs like Katie Liu-Sung, who has been cooking professionally since she was 16. Her first job was at a Church’s Chicken in Taichung, Taiwan, where she lived after spending her early childhood in Southern California. The Texas-born fried chicken chain had locations throughout Taiwan in the 1980s and ’90s, and she worked at a couple of them over the years, following their formulas for frying chicken and baking biscuits.
Ms. Liu-Sung is now the chef and owner of Chewology, a Taiwanese restaurant in Kansas City, Mo., that serves a classic rendition of popcorn chicken, as well as a steamed bun sandwich with Taiwanese fried chicken, cucumber pickles and chile mayo.
“There’s no limitation to what we have to push out on the menu, and that is becoming a really inspiring thing,” Ms. Liu-Sung said. “If people are really accepting of that here, I think it’s really beautiful.”
One night this year, a woman walked into the restaurant and began tearing up. The smell of freshly fried Taiwanese fried chicken permeating the room made her emotional, she told Ms. Liu-Sung.
“Because it reminded her of home.”
Recipe: Taiwanese Popcorn Chicken With Fried Basil
Few things go better with fried chicken than Champagne or a sparkling facsimile. That goes even for this dish, flavored with five-spice powder and soy. The frying supersedes the flavoring. See for yourself. Or try a good cava or crémant. Not in the mood for sparkling wine? Riesling would go beautifully, whether dry or a moderately sweet example like a kabinett or spätlese from Germany. Other white wines like chenin blanc or sauvignon blanc would be delicious, as would Chablis or a Mâconnais white. A dry rosé would work well. If you prefer a red, look for something fresh, with few tannins and little oak influence. It could be Beaujolais, or maybe a new-wave garnacha from Spain or a wine from the Cahors vanguard. ERIC ASIMOV
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