Monday, February 12, 2018

Taiwanese popcorn chicken

This dish is known as "salty crispy chicken" in Chinese, and that about sums it up in the tersest language possible. These seasoned chunks of fried chicken started to become insanely popular in Taiwan around the early eighties. I think the first people to sell this were the street hawkers. These folks would push little carts with propane stoves set up in front, a wok full of hot oil, and all of their seasonings ready in a shaker can.

Some chicken would already be fried and ready to go on their display shelves, but those in the know would ask that a fresh batch be cooked up to order. This ensured maximum freshness and crispness. Once the chicken had been fried, it would be transferred to a small paper bag. A handful of fresh basil leaves was then tossed into the chicken to add color and freshness and a blast of flavor, and toothpicks were inserted into a couple of the pieces to act as instant serving utensils.

The last word in fried chicken
This to me was one of the most inspired dishes I learned to love in Taipei. I’ve always been a big fan of fried chicken, but this beat American fried chicken by a country mile. It was the seasoning in the meat and the incredible crunchy-chewy texture of the coating that always blew my mind. Instead of plain chicken seasoned with just salt and pepper like Mom used to make, I could taste garlic and five spice and soy sauce in there. Every bite was yet another step down the path to complete addiction.

The Taiwanese have an amazing way with fried foods, for the meat itself is not only expertly seasoned from the inside out, but the coating is most often composed of nothing more than sweet potato flour. And I have to tell you, this is one of the best and most brilliant culinary inventions ever.

Taiwanese sweet potato powder
Instead of a batter, the meat is coated with this dry flour and the excess is knocked off just before the morsel is deep-fried. The surface turns from white to a deep golden brown and crisps up into bubbly mounds that crunch and offer total sensory satisfaction. But it’s what lies beneath that turns this into a genius move: the part right next to the meat becomes chewy and gloriously tensile. Oh. My. God. These contrast against each other and complement each other and then do this all over again in a luscious tango with the juicy meat.

Basil is the herb of choice in this dish. Its peppery, licorice aromas bounce off well against the fried chicken. But while it’s usually added as a raw garnish in Taiwan, I’ve come to love it fried. This way the leaves become brittle and the flavors turn muted, so that they act as more like a gentle counterweight to the chicken, rather than a conflicting salad of sorts. I’ve also added just a touch of cayenne to insert a bit of a kick. You can definitely add more or leave it out, depending on what you and the folks you are serving tend to like.

A hint of cayenne
Another thing I've done here is to sub out the regular bone-in chicken (usually whole birds are whacked up into small pieces) in favor of my favorite cut of meat, the thigh, which has had the bone removed to make dining even easier. Call it chicken mainlining, if you like.

This is still good cold (and would make terrific picnic fare), but I always opt for it fresh off the stove whenever possible. Serve this with ice-cold beer and prepare to be amazed. As Aretha Franklin said in The Blues Brothers, it’s the best damn fried chicken in the county.

Popcorn Chicken
Yánsū jī 鹽酥雞
Taiwan
Serves 6 as an appetizer or bar snack

1½ pounds | 675 g boneless free-range chicken thighs (about 5 or 6)
1 tablespoon regular soy sauce
½ teaspoon five spice
¼ teaspoon cayenne
1 tablespoon mild rice wine (like Taiwan Mijiu)
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
Deep bubble action
1 cup sweet potato flour or tapioca flour; cornstarch will work in a pinch
1 teaspoon dry-fried Sichuan peppercorn salt or black pepper salt
Half a bunch of fresh basil (more or less), rinsed and patted very dry
2 cups frying oil (used ok, as long as it smells fresh)

1. Pat the chicken dry. Leave the skin on if you are lucky enough to have it. Cut the chicken roughly into pieces no larger than 1 inch | 2 cm square. You don’t want uniformity here, as ragged bits will crunch up nicely, while the squarish ones will offer juicy contrast. Toss these in a bowl with the soy sauce, five spice, cayenne, rice wine, and sesame oil. Do NOT add the garlic unless you are cooking this within an hour, as otherwise the garlic will become overpowering. Cover the bowl and refrigerate at least for an hour and up to 24 hours. Toss in the garlic within an hour of proceeding to step 2.

Fresh basil
2. Pour the sweet potato flour or tapioca flour into the chicken and mix it around with your chopsticks so that every piece turns completely white. You should only have a little bit of flour left over. The flour is what gives this chicken its amazing texture, so don’t shortchange it by giving it a quick toss. Spend a couple of minutes on this.

3. Pluck the basil leaves off the stems; you can keep the top parts together, if you like. Pat these again until they are really, really, really dry. Any water that finds itself in the hot oil will explode, so this step is also important. Array the leaves on a dry tea towel and roll them up so that any extra water gets a chance to wick away.

Crisped up leaves
4. Have a medium work bowl and a Chinese spider or slotted spoon ready. Heat the oil in a small saucepan rather than a wok, as this will give you a deeper well to cook in and thus you will not need as much oil as when you are using a wok. Set the pan over medium-high heat. You can tell the oil is ready for frying if you insert your dry wooden chopsticks into the oil and they immediately bubble all over.

5. Carefully slide about a quarter of the chicken into the hot oil and mix them around with your chopsticks so that they do not stick to each other. Stir the chicken every once in a while so that the chicken gets evenly browned. As soon as it is a deep gold, use your spider or slotted spoon to scoop out the chicken into the work bowl. Repeat this step until all of the chicken is fried.

Snack heaven
6. Have a spatter screen or wide lid ready to shield you from any spattering oil. Set the pan over medium heat and cautiously slide in a small handful of the basil leaves. They probably will spit hot oil at you even though you did your best to remove all the water—that’s just life, so use your screen or lid to protect you from harm. As soon as the sputtering slows down, mix the basil around with your chopsticks to ensure that they fry evenly. When they turn a dark green and are crispy, scoop them out with your spider or slotted spoon and into the bowl with the chicken. Repeat until all the basil has been fried.

7. Sprinkle the toasted salt over the chicken and toss everything together so that the basil and salt quickly covers the chicken. Scrape this out onto a serving dish and eat immediately. Fried chicken will never be better than this.

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