When it comes to Korea’s favorite snack, if you want it done right, do it yourself | Food Column by Mary Lee Vance (Summer 2020 issue)
Friday night fish fries for me were always a delightful and delicious family tradition, and a favorite tradition in Wisconsin where I grew up. On Friday nights, the supper clubs would serve huge “family-style” platters of perfectly crispy fried fish, usually dipped in a beer batter.
On Sundays, I loved my grandmother’s fried chicken. It was so crispy, flavorful and yet tender and juicy (but not too juicy) inside. Those were my favorite meals, and yes, I still love fried foods.
Restaurants and food chains provide a wide variety of fried chicken options, but for me, most of them are extremely disappointing. The worst result is when the chicken has limp or fatty skin; or when the meat is under-cooked, partially raw or bloody. Worse yet is when the chicken pieces still have a lot of uncooked fat. Gross.
I have also had very disappointing experiences with uneven quality of the chicken at restaurants; I am served a perfect chicken one day, and the next time I go, I am subject to some dreadful failure of technique. The regular chef may have had the night off, but there is no excuse for this kind of unpredictability. That’s why good restaurant reviewers don’t rely on just one trip to a restaurant.
I think it’s the lack of consistency that has made me reluctant to order fried chicken even when I feel like having a nice fried chicken meal. It seemed like the only way to remedy this problem was to learn to make proper fried chicken myself. Granted, there are a hundred ways to wreck a respectable piece of chicken. But there are also many ways to cook it consistently every time. It isn’t rocket science, even if there is a little science involved.
So, I experimented with various recipes until I developed my preferred process. It is a lot of work, but well worth the effort to have a beautifully-cooked chicken dinner.
So, here’s the big secret to fried chicken —- it has to be fried twice! I learned this when I worked in a food service business during my college years. We would frequently partially fry the french fries and set them aside so that when the crowds gathered, we could quickly pop the fries in the fryer and they would be done in half the time and be super crispy.
When I made chicken for large student events, I would bake it twice. The first bake is to get the pieces done. Then I would chill them until the night of the party, pull them out, lay them flat on cookie sheets and bake them again until heated through. My chicken was highly sought after by the international students, because I always made it super spicy, flavorful, and crispy.
For a few years, I lived in Montana and attended a Korean church on Saturday nights. Confession —- it had something to do with the fact that it was the only place I could get any kind of Korean food within a two-hour driving radius. In order to buy ingredients for my own Korean food, I had to drive three hours to the nearest Korean grocery store. So it was a time saver and a cost saver to just go to church.
Each Saturday I waited patiently through a long service in Korean (which I didn’t understand), so that after service I could go to the kitchen and help the women prepare the post-service meal. Initially, they tried to push me away and didn’t want me to help, because they didn’t think I knew anything about Korean food (other than the fact I clearly loved what they made). They thought I was just a polite but unhelpful guest. But, when I independently started bringing in a crockpot of food to each service (since I wasn’t allowed in the kitchen), they realized I did know how to cook some Korean dishes. After awhile, I earned admission to the kitchen and officially became a church kitchen lady.
One time, I brought a variation of my fried chicken with me, and the women were all amazed. They couldn’t get enough of the wings and kept complimenting me, in between spitting out the bones and grabbing another piece. The wings were flavorful, but not as crispy as I like, because they sat in a crockpot for a couple hours. Of course, I coated them with a spicy gochujang sauce, knowing that the flavor would be a congregation-wide favorite.
Imagine my shock and joy when I went into my first Korean Fried Chicken (KFC) food chain, Bon Chon a couple years ago and sampled their wings. Perfection! More important, every time I ordered the wings, they were crispy on the outside and tender and moist on the inside. There were only two flavors; soy sauce and garlic, or gochujang. I never got tired of the spicy wings. They were delicious, and I could tell they used the double-fry technique.
My diet is mostly vegetarian (but since I am a foodie I have occasional meat relapses if I am in a place where the meat smells delicious and I think the preparation may be unique). From time to time, I have experimented to get a fried-chicken effect without the actual chicken. I can tell you honestly that no matter what vegans say, cauliflower does not taste like chicken, nor does seitan. I know gluten is a popular ingredient for meat substitute dishes (such as Vietnamese mock duck), but because I am basically a lazy cook, I have never bothered with the messy and tedious process of making fake meat, despite my frequent desire to have a chicken and waffle dinner.
During this time of COVID-19, I have been reluctant to go out to eat and I am cautious even with carry out. However, months had gone by, and I had not been to a restaurant since February, and I was really craving fried chicken and waffles. I was still looking for but had not found the right product or simple process to get the fried chicken effect at home.
It was then I discovered Deliciou, a dehydrated plant protein that, once reconstituted, can be prepared like chicken. I had already tried their lower sodium, bacon-flavored seasoning but when they launched the new plant-based chicken, I had to give it a try.
It took a few weeks for the order to be delivered from Canada, but it was well worth the wait. I finally was able to have my pan-fried (not deep-fried) vegan chicken and waffles. No vegan product can imitate chicken completely, but it was easy to prepare, good tasting, and tasted even better as a leftover the next day.
Here is a Korean fried chicken recipe that calls for double frying. This is excellent freshly made and hot, but also great at room temperature as a picnic item, or as leftovers the next day. As always, the sauce is per taste. Don’t scrimp on the heat if you like it spicy.
Spicy Korean fried chicken
3 pounds whole chicken, cut into pieces or chicken wings / drumsticks /
boneless chicken thigh —- your preference
2 T. rice wine 2 t. minced ginger
1 t. fine sea salt
1/2 t. ground black pepper
1 C. potato starch or corn starch cooking oil for deep frying (preferably the non-hydrogenated type, like safflower)
3 T. ketchup
2 to 2 1/2 T. gochujang
1/4 C. honey
1/4 C. brown sugar
2 T. soy sauce
2 T. minced garlic
1 T. sesame oil
1. In a bowl, mix the chicken, rice wine, ginger, salt and black pepper. Evenly coat the chicken with the starch and set aside.
2. In a deep saucepan or fryer, add a generous amount of oil and heat until the oil is boiling. Add battered chicken carefully in small batches and fry until done inside (three to five minutes, depending on thickness of each piece). Do not overcrowd the pan or overcook.
3. Place cooked pieces on paper to drain. After each batch is complete, scoop out any floating debris from the oil using a skimmer and add more oil if necessary.
4. Deep fry the cooked chicken again when the oil temperature reaches boiling. Fry them until the batter is golden and crisp. (The second fry time is shorter than the first time, about 2 to 3 mins) Set aside.
5. Combine sauce ingredients, and heat over low to medium heat and stir well. Once it starts bubbling, remove pan from the heat.
6. Place the double fried chicken into a large mixing bowl then drizzle sauce over the top, mixing lightly to coat thoroughly. Alternatively, serve the sauce on the side as a dipping sauce.
7. Serve the chicken as soon as possible after frying. Leftover chicken can be refrigerated for a day or two and eaten cold, but it won’t be as crunchy.
Food diva and former Wisconsinite Mary Lee Vance has expanded her R and D on multicultural fare and has conducted secret Spam experiments from an undisclosed Sacramento, California location where she lives and throws virtual dinner parties.