It took me longer than it should have to discover karaage. Traveling abroad is something I’ve always pined for but never had the opportunity to do, so when I finally got to go to Japan I was determined not to waste a minute of my time eating food for Americans. I wanted to immerse myself in the culture and stuff my face with real Japanese food.
Bad luck, along with my own lack of preparation, conspired to throw me in the deep end of the food scene, and in my first few weeks I had eaten (without meaning to) many of the most challenging foods in the Japanese repertoire, including: natto (fermented, sticky and stinky beans), salted and dried fish (with bones, for breakfast), squid sashimi (soo chewy), and cheap curry (which was toothache-sweet). I was on the ropes, desperate for something I could just devour when I finally caved and ordered the seven-dollar fried chicken special at my favorite lunch spot. I expected chicken tenders, but what I got was a bonafide Japanese epiphany – breading that’s shatteringly crisp yet somehow delicate, and juicy, soy-marinated chicken. This chicken is what motivated me to find Mari’s cooking class, because I needed to know how it was made.
And it’s laughably simple. The secret, magic ingredient that makes Japanese fried chicken special is potato starch. Dunk well-marinated chicken in a single dredge of potato starch, fry it, and you end up with something so impossibly crispy and delicious, there aren’t words.
I used small pieces of boneless chicken so my little nuggets would cook quickly without burning the delicate breading.
Mari mentioned that cornstarch is a decent substitute for potato starch if you can’t find it, so I did a side-by-side comparison below. For me, the potato starch makes the chicken. Bob’s Red Mill sells it, so check your grocery store’s health food or gluten-free section if you don’t find it with the regular baking supplies.
Cornstarch on the left, potato starch on the right. I love how the potato starch piles on itself and makes pretty, crispy flakes when it’s fried. Ugh I’m hungry.
Japanese Fried Chicken
(adapted slightly from a recipe given to me by Mari)
2 boneless chicken breasts or 4 thighs, cut into 2-bite pieces (if you de-bone yourself you should leave the skin on because it’s delicious)
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup sake
about 1 Tbsp fresh ginger, grated or chopped
3-4 cloves garlic, grated or chopped
2 tsp sesame oil
about 1 cup potato starch
oil for frying (choose a high smoke-point, neutral flavored oil like peanut)
lemon, for serving (optional)
1. Mix together soy sauce, sake, ginger, garlic, and sesame oil. Marinade chicken pieces for at least two hours, but up to overnight.
2. Remove chicken pieces from the marinade and drop them directly into a bowl of plain potato starch. The residual marinade will be enough to make the potato starch stick really well. Turn each piece to coat, and set aside.
3. Heat about two inches of oil in a dutch oven or deep pot over medium-medium high heat until a wooden spoon handle lowered into the oil bubbles actively. If you have a thermometer, shoot for a steady 350 degrees Fahrenheit. If you don’t have a thermometer, fry a few tester pieces to make sure your oil is hot enough to achieve golden-brown deliciousness. Fry the chicken in batches, turning as necessary. Move the cooked chicken to a paper towel lined plate or a wire rack over a pan.
4. Taste for seasoning – if you’ve marinaded your chicken long enough it shouldn’t need any, but if you did a quick marinade you may want salt. Serve while hot, with a squeeze of lemon if you like.