Kara-Age: Japanese for Fried Chicken!

Japanese-style crispy fried chicken is crazy good!

When you think of Japanese food I bet the first thing that crosses your mind is sushi. Of course sushi and sashimi are so uniquely, wonderfully, quintessentially Japanese that it’s natural for you to think first of raw fish when you think of the land of the rising sun. Maybe teriyaki, tempura, or ramen noodles also fleet across the transom of your mind. But how about fried chicken? Fried chicken, you ask skeptically, as your mind rebels? Maybe you think that fried chicken is somehow specifically American and that the Colonel (you know the one) invented it for all the world to enjoy. Well, you’re wrong. On so many levels. But if you think anything like that than you’re probably not an aficionado of this blog.

In America we have a skewed vision of what Japanese people eat daily. No, most Japanese do not subsist on raw sea urchin or blowfish entrails; only occasionally is sushi the focus. As with most people in the world they regularly eat homier, simpler fare — rice, noodles, veggies of all kinds, stews, salads, pork, and yes, fried chicken. The Japanese call it karaage or Kara-Age (pronounced kah-rah AH-geh) and it’s perhaps my favorite basic fried chicken recipe.

In reading up on this dish, I discovered that Kara-Age has origins outside of Japan. It’s thought to be based on a Chinese preparation, although I’ve not had anything quite like this in any Chinese restaurant. But like tempura (which has Portuguese origins) or potato salad (American GI’s introduced this dish) the Japanese have made this Chinese dish specifically their own, which generally means it’s more refined than what inspired it. And for fried chicken Kara-Age is surprisingly elegant. It’s super-easy to make and it doesn’t produce a huge mess. It’s cheap and (for fried chicken) it doesn’t leave you feeling like a grease-streaked, shame-filled Jabba the Hutt. It’s light, crisp, and utterly addictive. A little squeeze of lemon over the top or perhaps a dip in Japanese hot mustard or some kind of mayo-based sauce is all you need to complete this classic dish.

Kara-Age is a very common meal in Japanese households, probably because it’s so cheap and easy to make. Also, it’s super-addictive!

You will need:

  • 4 chicken thighs, skin-on and boneless, approximately 3/4 to 1 pound
  • one piece fresh ginger, about 1 1/2 inches in length
  • 3 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons sake, cooking sherry, or xao xing (Chinese cooking wine)
  • 1 tablespoon dark sesame oil
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely minced
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon finely ground white pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon finely ground black pepper
  • 1/2 cup potato starch
  • lemon wedges
  • thinly sliced green onions
  • wasabi mayo (easy recipe below)
A note on potato starch: it’s not so commonly used in the U.S. but it shouldn’t be too hard to find. Most grocery stores will feature it in the “Kosher” or the “Asian” sections, as opposed to near the flour or baking departments. I’m sure you can find it any decent Asian market or online as well.
Potato starch creates a very crisp crust and is really much better for frying Kara-Age than corn starch or flour, although both make decent substitutes. If you really can’t find potato starch, try a half-and-half combination of cake flour and corn starch.

Getting a cheap Japanese grater makes for a more authentic Kara-Age.

Now do this:

Cut the chicken thighs into pieces about 1.5 inches square and put them into a bowl. Don’t worry if they are different sizes. Variety is good! Now, if you wanted you could use chicken thighs without skin, but it won’t be anywhere near as crisp or tasty, I assure you. Likewise, you could use chicken breast, but it won’t be as juicy and you’ll need to adjust your cooking time downward as the breast meat will cook faster.

Next peel the ginger and grate it very finely. I find the best tool is a Japanese grater, which I bought at the Japanese market for about two bucks. It grates the ginger quite finely and produces a lot of ginger juice, which is great in the marinade. A microplane grater is also very good for the this job. A smallest holes on a classic box grater are fine too, but I tend to grate off my knuckles as well, which, frankly, sorta sucks. Whatever method you use, you’ll need about one-to-two tablespoons of ginger (plus the juice).

Add the ginger to the chicken meat and toss in the soy sauce, sake, sesame oil, garlic, salt, and ground peppers. Mix it all together very well with a spoon or your hands and then cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Put the bowl in the fridge and allow the chicken to marinate for 30 to 60 minutes.

After dredging the marinated chicken pieces in potato starch it helps to leave them out to air for ten minutes. I think it makes for a more uniform, crisper exterior.

While the chicken marinates set up a pot (with a fry thermometer) with about three inches of oil in it. Or set up a counter-top fryer. I always recommend a counter-top fryer; they’re relatively inexpensive and they have built-in thermostats, which means you don’t really need to monitor the thermometer and regulate the flame.

I like to use peanut oil because it imparts a great flavor, but any other oil that can handle high heat is perfectly acceptable. The Japanese frequently fry with rice bran oil or canola oil, both of which I like for their clean, neutral flavors; they don’t add much but they are both good to cook with.

To coat the chicken, first sift the potato starch into a medium-sized mixing bowl. After the chicken has marinated sufficiently drain any excess marinade that has collected in the bowl. Dredge each piece of chicken individually in the potato starch and shake loose any excess. I like to let the dredged chicken rest on a wire rack set over a sheet pan for about ten minutes; it helps the crust “set” on the chicken, resulting in a more uniform, crisper exterior. You can just put it on a plate if you don’t have a handy rack.

Fry the chicken in three or four batches at 350° for about five or six minutes or until the pieces are nicely browned. Ideally drain the pieces on a wire rack to allow excess oil to drain off. Excess oil collecting on the chicken can result in soggy areas.

Move cooked chicken onto a serving plate and garnish with lemon wedges and sliced green onions. Voila!

That’s it! That’s the dish! Congratulations, you’ve just made Japanese fried chicken. I’m sure you’ll find that it’s super-tasty and almost addictive.

Kara-Age is great with beer! Just thought you should know.

Basic Wasabi Mayo:

Mix a quarter cup of mayonnaise (Japanese “kewpie” mayo if you can find it) with a teaspoon of prepared wasabi. A tiny bit of lemon juice is a nice addition.

Instead of wasabi you can try a half teaspoon of shichimi togarashi, a wonderful (and easy to find) Japanese dried chili powder shake mixed with some dried citrus peel, sesame seeds, and flecks of nori.

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