Sorry Paula Dean, but nothing beats Japanese-style fried chicken. (To Mary in Austin and all my friends down south who make amazing fried chicken: Don't kill me! :) ). The secret is the marinade. Before the bird hits the hot oil in Japan, it wallows in a savory, soy sauce-and-garlic marinade bursting with mouthwatering umami goodness. After that treatment, it's quickly dusted with potato starch and tossed into the bubbling fat vat. The upshot is tender, juicy, intensely flavorful chicken with a super crispy yet light crust. Unbeatable. I've been jonsing for kara-age ("kara-ageh"), as it's called in Japan, so made it last night, and served it with just a bowl of steaming white Japanese rice and a tomato-cucumber salad on the side. Simple and satisfying, what can I say? The following recipe is a version I learned from the inimitable Nobuko, which I think is perfect. But I've also seen variations with ginger, beaten egg and other ingredients in the marinade. If you have a favorite way to make kara-age, lemme know in the comments! Oh, and this fried chicken is wonderful cold, too, so perfect for picnics (apple picking season upon us here in New York, so take along a kara-age snack), or school lunches (also upon us, of course). Herewith, the recipe:
4 chicken legs, bones removed and cut into bite-sized pieces (much tastier for this dish than boring white meat, a.k.a. "the Wonder Bread of chicken")
1/2 cup Japanese all-purpose soy sauce
2 tablespoons sake
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
8-10 cloves garlic, finely grated with a microplane or oroshigane (grating breaks down the garlic and releases its heat; key to this recipe)
1/2 cup potato starch (katakuriko)
2 quarts, or more, high-smoke point vegetable oil, like canola or peanut
1. Add the chicken pieces, soy sauce, sake, salt, pepper and garlic to a mixing bowl. With your hands, mix together the ingredients, "massaging" the chicken to combine it with the flavorings. Set aside to marinate for at least 1 hour (for longer than 1 hour or overnight, marinate in the refrigerator -- you can do this a day ahead of time if you'd like).
2. Set up a deep-frying station: Add the oil to a pot (you want the oil at least 2 inches deep), and secure a deep-fry thermometer. Place the pot on a burner. On the counter next to the burner, set up a newspaper-lined plate to drain the fried chicken.
3. Once the chicken has marinated, transfer the meat to a colander and drain the excess liquid. Turn on the burner and heat the oil to 360 degrees F (180 degrees C). While the oil is heating, add the potato starch to a closable plastic bag like a Ziplock bag. Now add pieces of chicken into the bag, seal and quickly shake until the chicken pieces are just coated with potato starch. (Remember good ole' "shake and bake" from days of yore? Same idea.) You can do this in batches.
4. When the oil temperature has reached 360 degrees F (180 degrees C), shake off excess potato starch from the chicken and add it to the pot. Deep fry in batches; make sure not to crowd the pot. Fry for about 5 minutes or until the chicken is golden brown. When the chicken is ready, transfer to the newspaper-lined plate to drain excess oil. Serve hot, and eat leftovers cold!