February 7, 2007
Koreans Share Their Secret for Chicken With a Crunch
By JULIA MOSKIN
WHEN Joe McPherson moved to Seoul in 2002, he thought he was leaving fried chicken behind. “I grew up watching Popeyes training videos,” Mr. McPherson said. His father managed a Popeyes franchise near Atlanta and fried chicken was a constant presence in his life.
“Living in the South, you think you know fried chicken,” he said. But in Seoul, he said, “there is a mom-and-pop chicken place literally on every corner.” Many Asian cooking traditions include deep-fried chicken, but the popular cult of crunchy, spicy, perfectly nongreasy chicken — the apotheosis of the Korean style — is a recent development.
In the New York area, Korean-style fried chicken places have just begun to appear, reproducing the delicate crust, addictive seasoning and moist meat Koreans are devoted to.
“Food in Korea is very trendy,” said Myung J. Chung, an owner of the Manhattan franchise of Bon Chon Chicken, a karaoke-and-chicken lounge that opened in December. “Other trends last two or three years, but fried chicken has lasted for 20 years,” he said.
Platters of fried chicken are a hugely popular bar food in South Korea — like chicken wings in the United States, they are downed with beer or soju, after work or after dinner, rarely eaten as a meal.
“Some places have a very thin, crisp skin; some places have more garlicky, sticky sauces; some advertise that they are healthy because they fry in 100 percent olive oil,” said Mr. McPherson, an English teacher, who writes a food blog called zenkimchi.com/FoodJournal.
“Suddenly there will be a long line outside one chicken place, for no apparent reason, and then the next week, it’s somewhere else.”
Even Korea’s corner bars and fast-food chicken chains are preoccupied with the quality, freshness and integrity of their product.
With Korean-style chicken outlets opening recently in New York, New Jersey and California, fried chicken has begun to complete its round-trip flight from the States to Seoul.
“I really think we make it better than the original,” said Young Jin, who opened a friendly little chicken joint called Unidentified Flying Chickens in Jackson Heights last month. “We use fresh, not frozen, chicken, always fried to order, no trans fats, no heat lamps.”
In Korea, chickens are much smaller, so the whole chicken is fried and served, hacked up into bite-size pieces. But the large breasts and thighs of American chickens are a challenge to cook evenly.
According to Mr. Jin and others, that’s why the Korean-style chicken places here serve mostly wings (true connoisseurs can specify either the upper “arm” or the “wing”) and small drumsticks. The chicken is typically seasoned only after it is fried, with either a sweetish garlic-soy glaze or a hotter red-pepper sauce that brings the dish into Buffalo wing territory.
But do not look for blue cheese and celery sticks, or even biscuits and gravy. The typical accompaniment to Korean fried chicken is cubes of pickled radish and plenty of beer or soju; the combination produces an irresistible repetition of salt and spice, cold and hot, briny and sweet, crunchy and tender.
“People — even Americans — say the combination is really addictive,” said Ryan Jhun, Mr. Chung’s brother-in-law and business partner. Mr. Jhun spent a month training with the founder of Bon Chon to master the chain’s frying method, which produces characteristically light and crunchy pieces. Bon Chon, Bon Bon and Unidentified Flying Chickens all base their technique on the one developed by Kyochon, one of the most popular Korean chains. Although none of the chicken fryers interviewed would describe the method in its entirety, its outline is clear. (Warning: partisans of Southern-fried chicken will find much that is blasphemous in the following.)
For crunch, American-style fried chicken relies on a thick, well-seasoned crust, often made even thicker by soaking the chicken pieces beforehand in buttermilk. When that crust is nubbly and evenly browned, and the chicken meat is cooked through, the chicken is sublime. But too often, the flesh is still raw when the crust is cooked, or the skin never cooks all the way through, leaving a flabby layer of skin between the meat and the crust.
Korean-style fried chicken is radically different, reflecting an Asian frying technique that renders out the fat in the skin, transforming it into a thin, crackly and almost transparent crust. (Chinese cooks call this “paper fried chicken.”) The chicken is unseasoned, barely dredged in very fine flour and then dipped into a thin batter before going into the fryer. The oil temperature is a relatively low 350 degrees, and the chicken is cooked in two separate stages.
After 10 minutes, the chicken is removed from the oil, shaken vigorously in a wire strainer and allowed to cool for two minutes. This slows the cooking process, preventing the crust from getting too brown before the meat cooks through. It also shaves off all those crusty nubs and crags that American cooks strive for.
After 10 more minutes in the fryer, the chicken is smooth, compact, golden-brown, and done. Then, it’s served plain (with a small dish of salt and pepper for seasoning) or lightly painted with sauce. When it’s done correctly, the sauce is absorbed into the crust, adding savor without making it soggy.
Last week, I tasted chicken from four different Korean-style spots, and arrived at a rule of thumb that the best chicken had the least sauce (although chicken with no sauce at all was weirdly bland). The chain Cheogajip was more heavy-handed with the sauce than the others, making their chicken too sticky and sweet. But all the other chicken was at least tasty and even delicious, remaining crisp through the day and when reheated the next morning. The sauces at Unidentified Flying Chickens, which Mr. Jin makes from scratch and is still developing, had the most rounded flavors.
Mr. Jin sees his new store, located in a neighborhood that is more Latino than Asian, as the cradle of a multicultural empire devoted to one thing: perfect fried chicken.
“You wouldn’t go to a soft tofu store and expect to find great kalbi,” he said, referring to the grilled, sweet-and-salty short ribs that are another Korean favorite. “When you make only one thing, and you make people wait for 20 minutes to get it, it had better be good.”
Here are places to try Korean-style fried chicken in New York City. Seating is often limited. All chicken is fried to order, so for takeout or delivery, call at least 30 minutes ahead.
BON CHON CHICKEN 314 Fifth Avenue (32nd Street), second floor, (212) 221-2222; and 157-18 Northern Boulevard (58th Street), Queens, (718) 321-3818.
BON BON CHICKEN 98 Chambers Street (Church Street), (212) 227-2375, opening in March.
UNIDENTIFIED FLYING CHICKENS 71-22 Roosevelt Avenue (71st Street), Queens, (718) 205-6662.