My Japanese cookbook translates this recipe as “Fried Chicken Chunks,” but I don’t think that name does it justice. We nostalgically refer to Tori no Karaage (which means “fried chicken”) as “Japanese festival chicken” because whether the occasion was cherry blossom-viewing in the spring or a hanabi (fireworks) show in the summer, we could always count on there being a fried chicken stand (which was more appealing to us than the whole-squid-on-a-stick stand). As you walk through a Japanese festival, the air smells like a sweet and savory combination of fried food, seafood, and caramelized soy sauce (the latter comes from the squid-on-a-stick; It’s doused in a sweet soy sauce before being grilled over an open flame). If you don’t read Japanese, don’t worry; all of the food stands have a banner displaying a cute little cartoon of the animal they’re cooking, such as a chicken, octopus or squid.
What makes Japanese fried chicken unique is that it’s marinaded in soy sauce and sake first, and then coated in potato (or corn) starch before being deep-fried, producing a very flavorful, moist inside and a distinct, crispy coating. It’s great eaten hot out of the oil for dinner with mayonnaise and spicy Japanese mustard for dipping, or eaten cold in a bento box for lunch. It’s also a popular beer snack. You’ll find this dish on the menu at izakaya, Japanese bars that also serve snacks.
We decided to make wasabi potato salad to go with our Japanese fried chicken. Just as American fried chicken and potato salad often go together at 4th of July BBQs, you’ll find potato salad (along with macaroni salad) in the prepared foods section of Japanese grocery stores, conveniently located right next to all of the fried food offerings.
Japanese Mayonnaise – “Kyu-pi Ma-yo-ne-zu“
A couple weeks ago, a friend (and English student) of ours from Japan sent us a package with lots of Japanese goodies, including the makings for Japanese potato salad: Japanese mayonnaise (which is slightly sweeter than the American variety and packaged in a squeeze bottle made of soft plastic), wasabi, and a bottle of Japanese pepper (Sanshou, which comes from the Sanshou plant and can be eaten in leaf or powder form). You mix those three ingredients into finely chopped boiled potatoes and you have authentic Japanese potato salad! I also added some sliced cucumber, because the supermarket that was across the street from our apartment prepared it that way and I have fond memories of eating it for lunch.
(If you want to read more about Japan’s love for fried foods, you might enjoy this old post, which I’ll resurrect for you. I talked about kushi-katsu restaurants that serve various fried foods on sticks that you dip into a communal sauce at your table. Sound fun?)
Tori no Karaage (Japanese Fried Chicken)
(Adapted from this little Japanese cookbook that one of my English students gave me called Japanese Favorites by Angela Nahas. It didn’t exist on Amazon, otherwise I’d link to it :))
16 oz. chicken tenders (or boneless-skinless chicken breasts), cut into bite-sized pieces
3 tsp. soy sauce
3 tsp. sake*
1 tsp. sesame oil
4 TBS. potato or corn starch
Canola oil for deep-frying
* We didn’t have time to run to the store, so I just used mirin, a Japanese rice cooking wine
- In a medium bowl, combine the chicken, soy sauce, sake and sesame oil. Cover and let marinate for at least 30 min. or overnight. Meanwhile, place the potato (or corn) starch in a large ziplock bag.
- Drain the chicken and place it in the bag with the starch. Close bag securely and shake until the chicken pieces are well coated. Add a little more starch if needed.
- Heat the oil in a wok (or medium saucepan) until bubbles start to form around the handle of a wooden spoon when it’s lowered into the oil (this is a cool little trick I learned from the book!) Fry the chicken in batches, about 3-4 min. for each batch, or until chicken is golden brown, turning once.
- Drain on paper towels and serve with wasabi potato salad. Serves 3-4.
Wasabi Potato Salad
yellow new potatoes or yukon gold potatoes, peeled (about 1 lb. for 2 people)
Japanese mayonnaise, to taste
wasabi, to taste
Japanese Sanshou pepper, to taste (or regular black pepper)
thinly sliced English cucumbers (optional)
- Place the peeled potatoes in a pot and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil, then simmer, uncovered, until potatoes are tender. Drain and allow potatoes to cool.
- Finely chop potatoes and transfer to a bowl. Add a couple good squeezes of Japanese mayonnaise, a squeeze of wasabi, and season with Japanese pepper. Mix well. Taste and add more mayo, wasabi and/or pepper if needed. Add the sliced cucumbers right before serving and gently mix to combine.