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The standard word for Japanese fried chicken, as it’s become known around the world, is kara-age. Chicken pieces (usually boneless) are marinated; coated simply with flour, starch (usually katakuriko potato starch) or both; and deep-fried. According to the Japan Karaage Association, the dish first appeared in 1932 at a then-new chicken speciality restaurant in Ginza called Mikasa Kaikan. But despite its ubiquity on menus across Japan, there is a surprising amount of confusion around the dish.

To start with, how should the word kara-age be written? The age (揚げ) part is easy — it means deep-fried. But there’s some debate as to whether the kara part should be the kanji for the Tang dynasty in China (唐, which is a synonym for China in Japan, regardless of the actual dynasty in power), to indicate its Chinese flavor influences, or the kanji for air (空), indicating that the dish is fried without batter. Both versions are considered valid. Some people avoid the issue by just writing kara in hiragana.

Another point of confusion is that most Japanese people can’t agree on the difference between kara-age and a similar deep-fried dish called tatsuta-age. Named for the Tatsuta River that flows in the northwest of Nara Prefecture, it gets its moniker because of the pretty contrast between the red-brown soy sauce marinade and the powdery white coating of potato starch used in the cooking process. Some insist that tatsuta-age is only coated with potato starch, while kara-age is coated with both flour and potato starch, but there are kara-age recipes that use only potato starch, too.

In any case, kara-age is a wonderful way to cook chicken. It’s almost always prepared with dark thigh meat, which is tastier and juicier, with the skin left on to add crispiness. The umami-packed marinade usually has grated ginger, or often garlic. An added perk: Kara-age pairs wonderfully with cold beer, a whisky sour or other drink of your choice.

This recipe is for zangi, a regional variation of kara-age popular in Hokkaido. The origin of this name is somewhat of a mystery, too, but it was probably thought up by the owner of a restaurant in Kushiro in the 1950s, who combined the Mandarin Chinese word for fried chicken (zāchī) with un, the Japanese word for luck.

One characteristic of zangi that sets it apart from other types of kara-age is that it is marinated in an assertive, slightly sweet sauce. An egg is often added along with the starch and flour coating to help the chicken retain moisture and give it a light, crispy finish. Zangi is usually served heaped on a plate, with lots of lemon to squeeze over it. It works well in bento, too, but be sure to cool it down completely before closing up the box.

Recipe: How to make zangi (Hokkaido-style kara-age fried chicken)

Serves 2 to 4

Prep: 15 mins., plus at least 2 hours marinating time; cook: 20 to 30 mins.

 

Note: For best results, get an inexpensive kitchen thermometer to measure the temperature of your frying oil.

 

For the marinade:

4 tablespoons sake

3 tablespoons soy sauce

2 teaspoons English Worcestershire sauce (such as Lea & Perrins)

2 teaspoons sugar

2 teaspoons grated ginger

½ teaspoon grated garlic

1 teaspoon sesame oil

Black pepper to taste

 

For the coating:

1 medium egg, beaten

2 tablespoons cake flour or all-purpose flour (“weak” flour)

5 to 6 tablespoons potato starch or cornstarch

 

600 grams boneless, skin-on chicken thighs

Vegetable oil for deep-frying

1 to 2 lemons, cut into wedges

 

1. Cut excess fat, bits of bone or cartilage, and sinew off the chicken. Poke the meat all over on both sides with the tip of your knife. Cut into large bite-sized pieces, about 30 grams each.

2. Combine the marinade ingredients in a bowl and add the chicken pieces. Mix well with your hands — it will be quite liquidy at first, but will become less so as the chicken absorbs the moisture. Cover the bowl with a double layer of cling film and refrigerate for at least two hours.

3. Take the chicken out of the refrigerator and mix in the beaten egg. Add the flour a little at a time, mixing well between additions.

4. Add the potato starch a spoonful at a time and mix until the chicken is coated with a thick slurry.

5. Add enough frying oil to immerse the chicken (about 3-centimeters deep) in a pot or wok and heat it to 160 degrees Celsius. Take each piece of chicken out of the batter and stretch the chicken skin around the meat to make a little rounded packet. Put the chicken pieces into the oil a few at a time, so the oil stays at temperature, and fry for four to five minutes, turning once.

6. Take the pieces out of the oil and place on a draining rack to rest for four minutes; they’ll continue to cook with residual heat. (You’ll probably need to fry the chicken in batches, so as soon as one batch finishes, take it out and start the next one.)

7. When all the pieces have been fried once, heat the oil to 180 degrees Celsius. Put the chicken pieces back in a few at a time, and fry for two more minutes until crispy and dark golden brown. Drain again and serve piping hot with lemon wedges.

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