Taiwanese popcorn chicken “oven fried” at home

At the beginning of this year, I started reading more about Taiwanese cooking. Taiwan has a complicated identity, not just because of its connection to (and arguably, ownership by) China, but also because of its history of colonization by multiple countries. While a lot in Taiwanese and Chinese cuisine overlap, some argue that Taiwanese cuisine is a completely distinct cuisine all in itself because of its native people, plus previous colonizers. Whatever you believe is certainly debatable, but what I think is most definitely true and not debatable is that the cuisine of Taiwan is extremely tasty. And that in itself is enough to appreciate Taiwan and its food.

Over the years, I’ve enjoyed various iterations of Taiwanese fried chicken. Sometimes, they were deep fried cutlets, while other times, they were in the form of bite-sized, “popcorn” pieces that were fried to perfection. The chicken always had a hint of five-spice mix, but it also had an interesting “je ne sais quoi” umami flavor to it that I couldn’t pin down. I’d never had it in all the other variations of fried chicken I’d had previously, whether it was American, Chinese, Japanese, Thai, or Southern American. I just couldn’t figure out what gave it that distinct Taiwanese flavor that popped.

And then I stumbled across the journalist Clarissa Wei, an American with Taiwanese heritage who now lives in Taiwan. She has co-written a Taiwanese cookbook called Made in Taiwan and also wrote several food pieces for Serious Eats, including a Taiwanese popcorn chicken recipe with a description that explained that umami pop that was distinct to Taiwan’s version of fried chicken. The secret ingredient was furu, or Chinese/Taiwanese fermented bean curd! I never would have guessed it, but after reading her article, it completely made sense. Furu, for those who are not familiar, is a fermented bean curd that has a very, very distinct smell/taste that some might call stinky or funky. It is usually found stir-fried in vegetable dishes like water spinach or Buddha’s Delight / luo han zhai. It gives a strong umami flavor, like a more peculiar version of miso. I used this in the chicken marinade and marinated overnight. Then, I coated the chicken in a flour-baking powder mixture, then in a sweet potato flour mixture, which is supposed to give a lighter “crust” to the fried chicken.

Clarissa’s recipe calls for deep frying, which is traditional for Taiwanese popcorn chicken, but I didn’t want to do this given the mess and oil waste. Instead, I used an “oven fry” method I learned from Amanda Hesser of Food 52, who published her mom’s recipe for oven fried chicken. Instead of deep frying, she would add two tablespoons of butter/oil to a bake pan, put it in the oven at 400 F until it was fully melted and coated on the pan. Then, she would add her coated chicken, skin-faced-down, onto the super hot pan, put it back in the oven, “oven fry” (time depends on your chicken cut type, whether it’s bone-in, size of pieces), then flip over once that face-down side was super brown and crispy. She’d put it back in the oven, roast until fully cooked and the second side was brown. Finally, it would be pulled out of the oven and ready to serve. This merging of two recipes/methods really worked! I was so impressed by the results and kept marveling over how tasty the chicken was. It really did have that nice underlying “funk” to it, and the crispiness was very, very satisfying. While enjoying this chicken, I couldn’t remember the last time I was more impressed with something new I had made. This recipe was most definitely a keeper, and so was the oven frying method for pieces this small!

I guess this just means I’m going to have to read more of her book and maybe even buy it. I’ve always loved Taiwanese food, just never really explored it in depth.

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