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Chicken Nanban with Japanese-Style Tartar Sauce

Chicken Nanban with Japanese-Style Tartar Sauce

Learn how to make Japanese-style tartar sauce and chicken nanban, a traditional soul food dish from Japan. The recipe includes the ingredients and instructions for the tartar sauce, nanban vinegar mixture, and preparing the chicken. This delicious meal is a popular favorite, and the tartar sauce can be made ahead of time for the flavors to fully develop.

So I was digging up research on Japanese-style tartar sauce for the new cookbook I'm working on with Tadashi, when I came across this dish. Yep, cookbooks are a little like childbirth -- wait a while and you forget the pain, and want to do it all over again! This time, Tadashi and I are working on our biggest, baddest project yet, a book devoted to Japanese soul food, and the family run joints across Japan lovingly serving it, especially old Showa-era restaurants still going strong today. (Hey, by the way, if you have suggestions of favorite soul food holes-in-the-wall in Japan to recommend, please let me know in the comments, and Tadashi and I will try to visit. Ramen, curry, tonkatsu -- it's all good!) The dish in the photo was originally conceived at a family style restaurant called Ogura located in the southern city of Miyazaki (great town), and has since become popular all over the country. Nanbanzuke is a pickling technique, traditionally for fish, where you first fry the fish, then marinate it in a sweet-savory vinegar (amazu). Here, this method has been adapted to chicken breast, with dallop of Japanese tartar sauce added for extra oomph. So what makes Japanese tartar sauce "Japanese?" I think (and feel free to weigh in here) that in the Japan version a hardboiled egg is added to tartar sauce, which isn't typically done in, say, America. In any case the tartar sauce I will describe shortly is wonderful, and not just for this dish. And the chicken breast, deep fried in a simple flour and egg coating, then dipped in the vinegar, is juicy, flavorful and delicious (and great for lunch the next day, too). Give it a try, especially if you've got kids. Here are the recipes:

Japanese-style tartar sauce

1/2 ounces finely chopped onions
2 hard boiled eggs, peeled and finely chopped
3 tablespoons mayonnaise
1/2 ounces finely chopped gherkins (cornichons)
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
Juice from 1/2 lemon
Freshly cracked black pepper

If you can, make this tartar sauce a day or two ahead of time, to give the flavors a chance to leisurely mingle. Place the onions and a pinch of salt in a cheesecloth or thin towel (or Japanese sarashi), fold the cloth over the onions and squeeze the onions to expel the slime and sharpness. Place the onions under cold running water, then squeeze again to dry. Once the onions are ready, add them and the eggs, mayonnaise, gherkins, parsley, lemon and black pepper to a bowl and mix until well combined. Keep in the fridge until you're ready to use.

Nanban vinegar mixture

1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon Japanese rice vinegar
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup sugar
1 Japanese chili (optional)

Combine the vinegar, soy sauce, sugar and chili in a saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Reduce the heat to the lowest setting to keep the vinegar warm while you prepare the chicken.

Chicken nanban

4 filets of chicken breast, flattened with the back of a heavy knife
Salt and pepper
1 beaten egg
Vegetable oil for deep frying

Season the chicken with salt and pepper. Prepare a deep fying station: Set up 1 plate with flour, 1 bowl with the beaten egg, and a vessel for deep frying on your burner. I like to use a cast-iron skillet filled with about 1 inch of oil. Heat the oil to about 360 degrees F (or 180 degrees C). I use a deep fry thermometer to gauge oil temperature. When the oil is ready, dredge the fillets in flour, shake off excess flour, then dip in the egg, shaking off excess egg. Carefully slide the fillet into the hot oil. Deep fry in batches, if necessary, depending on the size of your skillet. Cook for about 8 minutes, turning once. When the fillets are golden brown and cooked through, transfer them to a newspaper lined sheet to absorb excess oil. Then using chopsticks or tongs, dip the fillet into the warm vinegar mixture, making sure to coat both sides. Transfer to a cutting board, slice the fillets, and serve hot with the tartar sauce on the side. Enjoy!

One note -- you'll see in the photo that there are some thin-sliced onions and carrots on the plate. That's a traditional complement to nanbanzuke with fish, but I like it here, too. Add the onions and carrots right after the vinegar mixture has boiled and let them marinate until you're ready to serve the chicken.