In 1970, Takeshi Okawara, the manager of Japan’s first ever Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise, made history by marketing the American chain’s fried chicken “party barrels” as the quintessential Christmas dinner. It’s now impossible to go anywhere in Japan during December without being bombarded by imagery of Colonel Sanders in a Santa hat.
For the largely secular population of Japan who look at Christmas as more of a date night than a significant holiday – it’s a charming novelty. However, for some expats — unable to travel and missing the comforts and flavors of home — it’s an unsatisfying substitute for a heartwarming and hearty meal.
For those looking to re-create a holiday dinner in their compact Japanese kitchens devoid of an oven or other equipment more typical in a Western kitchen and feeling overwhelmed, fear not: There is a way.
When seasoned intentionally and prepared with plenty of butter, a pan-seared chicken thigh with pillowy mashed potatoes and homemade gravy is well within reach, and easily prepared in less than an hour. Traditional sides like creamed corn, spinach or glazed carrots are also surprisingly simple to achieve with what a typical Japanese grocery can provide.
While turkey is the typical protein of choice for many of us during the holidays, the reality is that it’s difficult to find — let alone properly prepare in a typical Japanese home. Much like Okawara all those years ago, you’ll need to adapt and overcome — and chicken is frankly as close as we’re going to get.
That said, the fatty and rich dark meat of the chicken thigh works as a fantastic analogue for the beloved, bigger bird. Besides, what makes a meal really taste like Christmas is actually rather simple: it’s all in the spices. Herb de provence is a common spice blend consisting of rosemary, thyme, oregano and savory, and it’s commonly available all over Japan. Combined with an additional pinch of sage, the spice mixture will give whatever you cook a boost of holiday flavor.
Head to the supermarket and pick up a bottle of each, along with some chicken consomme (cubes or granules), butter and flour (if you don’t already have them at home). Grab a chicken thigh, a bag of potatoes and you’re good to go.
If you’re thinking ahead, liberally season the skin side of your chicken breast with salt and leave it on a plate in your fridge overnight. This will act as a dry brine, pulling moisture out of the skin and give it an earth-shatteringly crispy bite. Pull the chicken out, dab off the excess moisture with a paper towel and toss it in a carbon steel or other pan without a non-stick coating on medium high heat.
While your chicken is roasting in the pan, plop your potatoes in some boiling water and let them go until they’re fork tender. Now would be a good time to prepare some veggies, which can truly be as simple as chucking some frozen spinach in the microwave to warm up.
Once your chicken thigh has reached a deep golden brown crust on the skin side, sprinkle some of your herb de provence on the flesh side, turn the heat to medium and flip it over to finish cooking, taking care not to burn the herbs on the bottom. Pull it out of the pan after another five or six minutes, and let it rest on a plate.
Drop some butter in the same pan and let it melt. Add in some flour and whisk until it’s a light brown. Then slowly add in some room temperature consomme. Whisk vigorously, season with black pepper and a little of your fancy spice mixture, and — bam! — you’ve got homemade gravy.
Using your whisk, smash your boiled potatoes with a stick of butter, salt, pepper (and white pepper, if you have it on hand).
Pile a helping of pillowy mash, your perfectly crispy, savory chicken, any veggies you’ve made and smother it with your homemade gravy.
It may not be mom’s cooking, but it’s close enough. And it sure beats standing in line for KFC.
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