If I were on death row, my last meal would be fried chicken. I don’t mean a piece, or even a plateful. I mean ALL the fried chicken, from Shashlik’s butter-oozing Kiev to the springy morsels of sternum cartilage served at sake bars; from spring chicken still spluttering from the fryer at local icon Arnold’s, to my childhood favourite paper-wrapped chicken from Union Farm Eating House, and every piece of oil-baptised bird in between. After all, you can’t bring it with you.
Good fried chicken should be like a striptease. First, your eyes and your fingers meet its outer garb, which may be flamboyantly crunchy or as crackly thin as frost, or be perhaps just a sheen of perfumed oil. This slips off to reveal the skin, which should be sheer but maximally flavourful, and never merely fatty. The skin parts to unveil the meat, which should yield lushly to your devouring bite, and finally you reach the bones, off of which you nibble the last bouncy, caramelised, silky nubbins of chickeny goodness.
Truly good fried chicken, however, goes deeper than mere titillation. It seizes us so because its flavour logic is indisputable; the union and contrast of juicy insides and crisp outsides so primal, so elemental, so unquestionably right. It inspires the kind of abiding devotion that launches intrepid quests for fulfilment, builds business empires, and provokes fierce rivalries (such as the fried-chicken-burger heats between New York City’s Shake Shack, Fuku and Chick-Fil-A chains a couple of years back).
Who doesn’t love this egalitarian treat, whether gobbled off paper, banana leaf, or fine porcelain? In its unabashed decadence, it punctures pretension. Fried chicken doesn’t care about how much your bespoke shirt sleeves cost or how fresh your manicure is. It just invites you to roll up the former and lick its traces off the latter, with full abandon, sans embarrassment.
Its core ingredients are few: a bird, ample animal or vegetable fat, a sturdy heat-tolerant pot, and the judgment of a canny eye. Although the American version – classically soaked in buttermilk before being floured and fried in lard – may be the most globalised recipe as a fast-food ambassador, many cultures have their own canonical chicken, laying diverse riffs over the basic groove with spices, marinades and garnishes.
There is a fried chicken for every proclivity. Looking for bone-deep flavour? Let the bird wallow in pungent fermented shrimp paste or a vegetable-juice brine as Hong Kong cooks do, or try Punjabi chargha chicken, steeped in spiced yogurt for hours, then steamed and deep-fried whole.
Want it extra-crusty? Korean fried chicken is floured, battered, and fried twice for superb crunch. Not a fan of greasy crust at all? Cantonese chefs “fry” not by immersion but by continuously ladling boiling oil over the suspended whole chook, until its skin is lacquer-bright and its meat relaxes into tenderness.
Too tired to gnaw with conviction? Javanese- style ayam penyet (literally smashed chicken) is thwacked with a pestle after frying, to tenderise and loosen flesh from bone, and Thailand’s pandan-wrapped meaty chunks of gai cater to total bone-phobics. Wary of overwrought, hipsterised modern fast food but nostalgic for the fried chicken of decades past? You may be surprised at how much some chains, like the Philippines’ Jollibee – my own current go-to chicken fix – hark back to the simpler flavour profiles of yesteryear.
Nostalgia may assist in fried-chicken love growing into something yet deeper. Witness how, since the mid-1980s, through some mysterious alchemy of marketing and semiotics, Kentucky Fried Chicken has been taken to heart as the Christmas dinner of choice in Japan. There, it has come to represent Western-style indulgence, jollity and seasonal family bonding, free of home-grown cultural angst or any tradition shackles. Over the 2017 Christmas weekend, KFC Japan raked in six billion yen (S$72 million).
Indeed, KFC Japan’s menu is now so ramified that it offers dishes and tie-ins unheard of in its mother country, such as Hokkaido cultured butter biscuits, Christmas chicken and dried fruit ballotine, “reduced odour” fried chicken tailored to not offend fellow commuters on public transport, and – really – KFC-scented bath salts. Challenging KFC in both quality and weirdness are Japanese brands like convenience store chain Family Mart’s Famichiki, whose mascot in commercials does ordinary things like going shopping, skiing and getting massages, despite being a giant fried chicken piece with human arms and legs.
Which, come to think of it, is an alter-ego that we lifelong fried-chicken devotees would not disavow, but knowingly embrace, within our golden wings.
Christopher Tan is an author, photographer and culinary teacher. He has published several cookbooks, the most recent being NerdBaker, his 10th.