What is “karaage?”
Whatever part of the globe you live in, it seems that humanity’s love for fried chicken is universal and cross-cultural. Though it may have started in the West, it has even made its way to Japan in the form of chicken karaage!
What is it however that makes this sensation from Japan known as chicken “karaage” so special?
Chicken “karaage” offers an interesting spin to what we usually know about fried chicken in the West. In Japan, karaage is usually made with boneless chicken thigh marinated with soy sauce and dipped in potato starch. On the inside, chicken karaage manages to be soft and juicy, while its exterior is a crunchy and crisp coating which serves as a nice contrast to the softness inside. People also sometimes serve it alongside lemon, mayonnaise, or with a small salad to enhance its flavor.
Most Westerners usually stick to a simple batter and just salt and pepper to make their fried chicken. Chicken karaage however makes sure that even the chicken meat inside is a truly flavorful experience through its addition of uniquely Japanese ingredients such as ginger, sake, and sesame oil which give it an edge over the more plain taste of Western fried chicken (this is not to put down the KFC lovers among us however!)
History of karaage
Is chicken karaage a new dish? Relatively speaking, in the span of Japanese history which has dishes that have existed for thousands of years, it is indeed a new dish… but its origins in the country surprisingly had little to do with chicken!
The heavy battered frying technique used for fried chicken that we know today as “karaage” has only been in Japan since the 1920s. It was introduced into the country by the Chinese as a way of frying tofu for vegetarian meals, unique for its usage of soy sauce and rice wine in the cooking process.
After the Second World War, of which Japan suffered heavily, there were shortages of practically everything in the country. As such, a major state reform introduced new methods of food production such as industrial breeding which was necessary to feed its large and continuously increasing population at a relatively low cost.
This is where chicken comes in, favored for its versatility and affordability, making it a very popular meat for Japanese families at the time. Households would then begin to apply the “karaage” battered frying technique of old on the increasingly popular chicken meat readily sold at markets. From the decades onward, Japanese chicken karaage would cement itself as an essential piece of cuisine eaten by millions everyday to this day, very much ingrained in the cultural identity of the country.
Karaage as a sensation
From its humble origins as a means of cooking tofu for vegetarian dishes, it has become a sensation that has captured the hearts of generations of Japanese citizens, even catching the attention of foreigners from the West who have come to the country to experience authentic Japanese karaage chicken, and even tried to reproduce its magic in their own countries.
In the span of a few decades, Japanese chicken karaage has transformed from a local niche food, to an international sensation that captures the taste buds of millions of people across the globe. If there was a rival to the traditional Western fried chicken we are familiar with, the savory Japanese chicken karaage is truly a worthy adversary.
How to make karaage?
Karaage is a very simple dish to make if you know where to start.
To begin, take a boneless chicken thigh and slice it into bite-size pieces.
Next, you will need to marinate the chicken in soy sauce, sake, grated ginger, and a little bit of sesame oil. If you can’t find sake, you can use white wine instead.
After marinating, roll the chicken in a mixture of flour and potato starch. If you don’t have those ingredients, you can use seasoned flour.
Next, deep fry the chicken in oil until golden brown and crispy.
Lastly, serve the karaage hot and enjoy!
Variations of karaage
Karaage is a dish that has greatly excited the taste buds of so many people that have eaten it. As such, it has also become one of the many dishes to evolve in its form thanks to talented chefs. Today, there are many variations of karaage created to suit the different tastes and preferences of people.
1. Chicken Nanban is a variety of the dish that has its origins from the island of Kyushu, specifically the Miyazaki prefecture. Chicken Nanban has become so popular across the country so much so that you can find it in almost all restaurants across Japan.
The dish takes on a different spin by having the boneless deep fried karaage served with white tartar sauce. With its exemplary taste, Chicken Nanban has become the favorite of many people.
2. Teba Shio is another type of karaage. However, it takes a different form from the usual boneless karaage. Instead, it uses chicken wings as its main ingredient. With this, Teba Shio is basically deep fried chicken wings.
3. Toriten, or otherwise known as Chicken Tempura, is a type of karaage popularly served with udon noodles. The dish has its origins in the Oita prefecture of Kyushu island. Toriten is a truly unique take because it is a combination of two different popular dishes – the karaage and the tempura.
The dish is different because it uses tempura wheat flour instead of the usual cornstarch. This makes it have a texture that is similar to tempura. Toriten can be a side dish or topping to a main dish. A popular choice is having toriten topped in udon otherwise known as toriten udon.
Where to find Karaage in Japan
From the decades since the 1920s, chicken karaage increasingly became an everyday dish for the average Japanese family. As a result of its popularity, everything pertaining to the preparation of karaage is sold as ingredients in the supermarket.
For instance, there are special chicken cuts which are sold boneless, cut into pieces fit for chicken karaage in typical Japanese supermarkets. There is also “karaage ko,” a special type of flour used to create the crispy coating of chicken karaage. Some people even sell karaage fried chicken hot and ready to eat at prepared food counters in typical Japanese supermarkets.
There are also food stands dedicated for chicken karaage at traditional Japanese matsuri festivals celebrated periodically at Shinto shrines all over Japan.
Today, there are even entire restaurants specializing in karaage, which have endless recipe variations for chicken karaage!
Needless to say, if you’re going on a trip to Japan and are craving some of this world renowned fried chicken, you won’t have a difficult time searching for it.