Chicken Karaage: Japanese Fried Chicken

A revised and updated recipe! In the 7 years since I originally posted this recipe, chicken karaage has gotten much better known in the western world. In the U.S. a lot of people now call it JFC, or Japanese Fried Chicken. I've tweaked the recipe a bit and cleared up the instructions, but fundamentally it's the same recipe I learned from my mom, decades ago.

This is my absolute favorite way to make, and eat, fried chicken. Unlike other types of fried chicken, karaage never leaves me feeling greasy and slightly gross afterwards. Perhaps it's the ginger in the marinade, or the crispy-light surface, or the liberal squeeze of lemon added before eating. In any case, chicken araage is juicy and so crispy when hot, and still succulent when cold. It's great for bentos. My mom used to set aside a couple of pieces from dinner for my bento the next day all the time when I was growing up.

The kara part of the word karaage refers to China, meaning that this method of preparing chicken was probably inspired by China. (The age means deep-fried.) In spite of its probable origins, I really haven't encountered a Chinese dish that is exactly like this, though there are many deep-fried chicken dishes in Chinese cuisine of course. The method of marinating meat in fresh ginger to get rid of any gaminess or so, which is quite disliked in both Japanese and Chinese cooking generally, is fundamentally Chinese I believe.

This is a really simple recipe; just be careful of the oil and you'll be fine. You can make karaage with breast meat, but I think it's much better with the dark thigh meat. And, I know that skin-off is allegedly healthier, but it's so much crispier with the skin left on.

Chicken karaage

By Makiko Itoh

chicken-karaage-new.jpg

Published: April 29, 2004

Classic, crispy Japanese-style fried chicken. My Japanese mom's recipe, so guaranteed to be good.

Prep time: 10 min :: Cook time: 20 min :: Total time: 30 min

Yield: 10 to 12 pieces

Serving size: 3-4 pieces as part of a Japanese meal or in a bento

Ingredients:

  • 10 oz (300g) boneless chicken thighs
  • 1 piece fresh ginger, (about the size of your thumb)
  • 3 Tbs. soy sauce
  • 1 Tbs. sake (see substitution notes below)
  • about 1/2 cup Potato starch (katakuriko) or cornstarch, (enough to coat the chicken. Potato starch is better, but cornstarch will do)
  • peanut oil or other vegetable oil, (for deep frying)
  • a few drops sesame oil, (optional; add to the frying oil for extra flavor)

Directions:

Cut up the chicken thighs into bite-sized pieces. You can take off the skin if you like, though it does make the chicken crispier.

Peel and grate the piece of ginger. A microplane grater works great for this task.

Put the chicken pieces in a bowl. Add the grated ginger, soy sauce and sake, and mix well. Let marinate for a minimum of 10 minutes. Around 30 minutes is ideal. If marinating for more than an hour (say, overnight), use 1 tablespoon soy sauce, then add the other 2 tablespoons just before you're ready to cook them; this prevents the salt in the soy sauce from drawing out too much moisture from the chicken.

Heat the oil; if using a temperature-controlled fryer or a thermometer, aim for 180°C / 355°F. If not, a test with a single piece of chicken or a small piece of skin. Toss enough potato or cornstarch into the marinated chicken (drain off a bit of the marinade if it's too watery first) so that each piece is completely coated. Fry the chicken pieces a few at a time until a deep golden brown.

Drain well - a wire rack is best for this, but paper towels work too.

Serve with lemon wedges. Some people like to add a sprinkling of grated yuzu peel and/or sansho pepper.

Ingredient notes and substitutions

Potato starch, or katakuriko, is standard for karaage in Japan. It creates a wonderfully light, crispy, greaseless surface. It's not that easy to get a hold of in many places though (look in a Japanese grocery store), so __cornstarch__ (cornflour in the UK) is an acceptable substitute.

Note that you can marinate this for as little as 10 minutes and it will taste really good. I prefer not to marinate it for more than 30 minutes, to let the flavor of the chicken shine through.

If you cannot use sake, substitute one of the following (they are listed in order of preference): sherry, mirin, Chinese xiaoxing (shaoxing) wine (the label should say 紹興酒). If you can't use alcohol at all, add a pinch of sugar for the slight sweet flavor, and leave it at that. Vinegar is __not__ a good substitute for sake even if some websites and cookbooks say it is. Sake does not taste anything like vinegar.

For an explanation of why sake and ginger are used in the marinade - besides for flavor - see this article.

Oil testing tip

A thermometer is the most accurate tool for measuring temperatures of course, but here's a Japanese cooking trick for testing oil temperature that's surprisingly reliable. Just put in a pair of long cooking chopsticks (saibashi) vertically into the pan of oil, so the tips touch the bottom.The smaller and faster the bubbles rise out of the porous bamboo, the hotter the oil. For karaage the bubbles should be quite small and fast. You can buy saibashi at Japanese grocery stores as well as Chinese ones. Be sure to get bamboo ones, no plastic, or this trick won't work.

Variation with a ginger-spring (green) onion sauce

I have a variation of this recipe, in which the chicken pieces are tossed in a tangy green onion-ginger sauce, in my Just Bento Cookbook. The tangy sauce makes the karaage really sing in a bento. This variation was recently adapted and featured as part of a Cook The Book week on Serious Eats.

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