Some restaurants — Burger King, Pizza Hut, Subway — make no secret of their culinary forte, proclaiming it in their brand name.

By that logic, it’s a bit of a no-brainer to deduce that Mister Karaage — a food cart operating out of Kirby Lane, an open-air community space in the heart of Nelson, New Zealand — would specialize in Japan’s karaage fried chicken.

The man behind the moniker is Kenji Usui, 55, a native of Ogaki, Gifu Prefecture, with a passion for the addictive snack. Together with his New Zealander wife, Rachel, he relocated from Gifu, where they ran an English-language school, to Nelson. There, they ran the Balmoral Motel from 2009 until 2019. Less than a year after selling the business, Usui, riding a local food truck boom, kicked off his culinary career.

“I’d been self-employed for a long time and was used to that (lifestyle), so I knew I wanted to work for myself,” Usui says of his transition from motel owner to chef. “In Japan, karaage is quite commonplace, and everybody loves it to the extent that it’s basically ‘Japanese soul food.’ But no one really thinks about it too closely. … When I decided to start a (new) business, I pondered various ideas and then had a realization that ‘come to think of it, I really love karaage. And no one is doing it (in Nelson).’”

Usui goes on to explain that Japanese restaurants are popular worldwide — not only do Japanese chefs and restaurants consistently dominate international rankings such as La Liste, Michelin Guide and Asia’s 50 Best, the number of overseas restaurants serving Japanese food jumped 30% in the past two years. However, there aren’t many specialty karaage joints, particularly in New Zealand.

With the support of his wife, Usui started making karaage at home once a week to develop a recipe. Today, he marinates his chicken in soy sauce and dredges it with a batter of katakuriko (potato starch) instead of flour, both for its “Japanese image” and crispier texture. At Mister Karaage, Usui now offers his karaage in three flavors: regular, black pepper (inspired by classic Nagoya-style tebasaki chicken wings) or piquant shichimi (“seven flavors” spice), and served either on its own, on rice or, as of early March, as part of a mixed bento.

Savory snack: Kenji Usui marinates his chicken in soy sauce and dredges it with a batter of katakuriko (potato starch) instead of flour for a light and crispy texture. | CLAIRE WILLIAMSON
Savory snack: Kenji Usui marinates his chicken in soy sauce and dredges it with a batter of katakuriko (potato starch) instead of flour for a light and crispy texture. | CLAIRE WILLIAMSON

The chicken is juicy and crisp without being oily, with a savory umami undertone from the shoyu marinade. Closing your eyes, you can easily imagine that you’re eating en plein air at a summer matsuri festival.

Asked if he made any changes to localize the recipe for the Kiwi palate, Usui gives a definitive “no.”

“Everyone in the world knows what fried chicken is,” he says. “And everyone in the West is now familiar with soy sauce, so I didn’t see the need to adjust it. Even though I offer a variety of Western sauces, I wanted (the chicken) to be as traditional as possible.

“Although I offer teriyaki sauce or okonomiyaki sauce, the truth is those aren’t Japanese-style,” he continues.

One condiment Usui is keen to promote, however, is traditional Kewpie mayonnaise, which is made with vinegar and egg yolks, rather than whole eggs, for a thicker texture and tangier flavor than standard white mayo.

“It’s really important for me to use Kewpie mayo,” he says. “I want to spread karaage, but I also want to spread the idea of ‘mayo and (another sauce).’ I used to think that ‘karaage didn’t need condiments,’ but a Japanese-speaking friend told me that ‘Kiwis love condiments so you have to have them,’ and my mindset changed to exploring different sauce variations, which was a good thing.”

Although Usui has dreams of one day opening a brick-and-mortar karaage chain across New Zealand, or a “nostalgic” izakaya pub in Nelson, for now he’s dedicated to frying chicken at his Mister Karaage cart. It’s been a one-man labor of love, down to the distinctive, sharp-toothed chicken logo. Usui designed it himself, riffing off the distinctive glasses worn by one of his favorite characters in “Macaroni Horenso,” a Showa Era (1926-89) slapstick manga by Tsubame Kamogawa.

“I don’t know if I’ll be able to do it but … Japan has a lot of delicious dishes, like karaage, that are virtually unknown overseas,” he says. “I don’t have any firm plans, but after karaage, maybe I’ll introduce Japanese karēraisu (curry with rice) or onigiri (rice balls) to Kiwis.”

For more information, visit misterkaraage.co.nz.

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