As the popularity of crispy chicken goes through the roof, Taiwanese American chefs are putting their own spin on the classic street food.
David Kuo and his brothers used to play video games in their family’s backyard in West Covina, Calif., in a garage that had been turned into a game room. Just outside, his grandmother’s vegetable garden had luffa gourds, garlic chives, sweet potato leaves, and other crops that were popular in Taiwan.
But Mr. Kuo’s father would often come home late from work with a bucket of Church’s fried chicken, which they would eat while fighting pixelated figures on the screen.
The boney pieces were different from the kinds of fried chicken Mr. Kuo had when he went to Taiwan with his family: yan su ji, boneless popcorn chicken with fried basil leaves, and da ji pai, boneless breast cutlets that had been butterflied. Taiwanese fried chicken is marinated in soy sauce, rice wine, sometimes garlic, and always five-spice powder. It is then coated in coarse sweet potato starch, fried, and finished with a dusting of white pepper. It is usually served in paper bags without sauce so it can be eaten on the go.
At Mr. Kuo’s restaurant in Los Angeles, Little Fatty, the chicken on the menu is both familiar and unique. In a nod to his Taiwanese roots, his American childhood, and his experience in fine dining, Mr. Kuo sells small pieces of popcorn quail with the bones still in them, topped with fried basil and served with spicy mayo for dipping.
“It’s a symbol of Taiwanese food, but it also reminds me of good times,” he said. “The best fun was to eat something with bones in front of the TV.”
In the United States, there is a growing interest in Taiwanese food. Cookbooks about Taiwanese food are everywhere, and new shops and pop-ups are opening all the time. Taiwanese fried chicken is becoming a popular dish among more people, and restaurants are running out of it as a result. The crunchy, fragrant chicken, which is often served like popcorn at boba shops in the U.S., is making its way into the American food scene as fried chicken becomes more popular: Fast food restaurants compete to make the best crispy chicken sandwich. College campuses are full of places to get Korean fried chicken. In New York City, people line up for Indian fried chicken sandwiches and give them good reviews.