This Japanese snack sometimes has to be ordered off a secret menu, or maybe it's cooked as a treat for kitchen staff. In other cases, this crunchy and flavorful goodie remains a favorite for fans of Asian street foods and a staple of local Japanese menus.
We're talking about chicken karaage, the form of Japanese fried chicken that's a favorite of bento boxes around the world. But these are no ordinary nuggets meant for Happy Meals. Chicken karaage starts as marinated pieces of meat, which are then cooked golden in a wok or fryer with oil.
The result: tasty chicken pieces that'll appeal to both preschoolers and their Japanese-food-loving parents.
"It's a favorite," said Taka Watanabe, chef and owner of Taka's Sushi in Fair Oaks and midtown's Ju Hachi. "I'll make them for my employees and me, too. They're crunchy outside and moist inside."
Karaage (KAH-rah-AH-geh) refers to a cooking method rather than a particular dish. Karaage translates loosely to "light fry" and can be applied to most meats. Seafood, such as Chilean sea bass and octopus, can be cooked in a karaage preparation, though chicken remains king of karaage.
In Japan, said Watanabe, "traditionally you get five to seven pieces, small bites, with maybe a side of mustard. It's something to nibble on while drinking, so you see it a lot in an izakaya or bar."
While many traditional Japanese cooking techniques don't rely much on oils, some staple dishes require a mastery of frying.
The Edo period in Japan, which lasted from the early 1600s to the mid-1800s, brought a new set of worldly influences to Japanese cooking and the inclusion of oils into the kitchen. For example, tempura, the batter-fried vegetables and fish that are now customary on Japanese menus, was influenced by Portuguese missionaries. Karaage is also a product of the Edo period.
The deep-fried cutlets of chicken or pork called katsu came later, developed in Japan during the late 19th century.
Although the traditional karaage preparation is fairly simple, different marinade recipes and dipping sauces can take karaage for plenty of flavorful spins.
The chunks of chicken are generally dark meat, but white meat is sometimes used. Watanabe cuts the meat into 1-inch pieces and seasons with white or black pepper, plus shredded ginger and garlic. Soy sauce and mirin (Japanese cooking wine) are then added to complete his sweet- and peppery-smelling marinade.
"You only need to soak them for about five minutes," said Watanabe. "Otherwise the chicken will get too heavy and too salty."
After the brief marinade bath, Watanabe coats the chicken pieces in cornstarch. Then, these tasty nuggets fry in canola oil at 375 degrees for about 15 minutes. Given the soy sauce in the marinade, the chicken pieces will quickly appear extra dark though they won't be fully cooked.
Once the karaage fully fries, Watanabe plates the chicken pieces with a slice of lemon, but substitutes the customary Chinese mustard for a ponzu sauce spiced up with Sriracha hot sauce. Watanabe's karaage doesn't need much of a dipping sauce. The marinated dark meat makes for a juicy and supremely seasoned chicken snack that you'll never find at a drive-thru window.
Survey Japanese restaurants around the Sacramento area and you'll find different approaches.
At Hana Tsubaki in east Sacramento, karaage has been a menu staple since the restaurant was founded 35 years ago. No mere appetizer, Hana Tsubaki's karaage is the heart of a lunch special on Wednesdays and Thursdays.
"Most people eat it like a finger food, but we have it as a bigger piece," said James Takashiba, who helps run Hana Tsubaki with his parents. "We've had it since Day One. Fifteen to 20 years ago in Sacramento, sushi wasn't as big as it is today. Chicken and beef dishes and other kitchen foods were more popular. We treat it like an entree."
Hana Tsubaki's karaage isn't marinated. Instead, after a chicken cutlet of dark or white meat has been fried, a sweet sauce is drizzled over the top. Sesame seeds are sprinkled on top as a final punctuation, and the karaage comes plated with salad and a small mound of rice.
You can find a more traditional karaage as an appetizer at Mikuni Sushi, where it keeps a fairly low profile on the menu, though it's an especially familiar food for co-founder Taro Arai. He's a native of Amakusa, an island city in Japan's southwest.
"You'll find karaage all day long in Japan," said Arai. "It's one of the most common things and pretty simple. All you usually get on the side is some lemon."
Each Mikuni chef prepares a different interpretation of karaage. A soy sauce and onion dressing is used for a marinade at the Davis location, while white pepper, onion powder and even a bit of sugar are used as seasonings in other cases.
Other recommended spots for karaage around Sacramento include Akebono, which serves some of the tastiest karaage in town. Akebono's sister restaurant, Ramen House Ryu Jin, serves full chicken wings in a karaage preparation.
At Izakaya, a fairly new Japanese restaurant and ramen house on Freeport Boulevard, you have to be in the know to get chicken karaage, as it's not listed among the offerings of appetizers and entrees, but it can often be ordered as an off-the-menu item.
Back at Hana Tsubaki, the entree-style karaage with sweet sauce and sesame seeds remains a popular choice. Fried chicken, after all, is never a tough sell.
Noted Takashiba, surveying a recent lunch crowd, "Everybody seems to order it."
Call The Bee's Chris Macias (916) 321-1253. Follow him on Twitter @chris_macias.
Prep: 1 hour, 10 minutes
Cook: 10 minutes
Karaage, the Japanese version of fried chicken, is first marinated in ginger, garlic and soy sauce, then coated in potato starch and fried until golden brown and crisp. This recipe was created by chef Marc Matsumoto for www.norecipes.com.
1 pound boneless chicken thighs, skin-on, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 tablespoon ginger, grated
1 clove garlic, grated
2 tablespoons soy sauce (use tamari to make it gluten-free)
1 tablespoon sake
2 teaspoons granulated sugar
1/3 cup potato starch
Vegetable oil for frying
Lemon for serving
Add the ginger, garlic, soy sauce, sake and sugar to a bowl and whisk to combine. Add the chicken, then stir to coat evenly. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.
Add 1 inch of vegetable oil to a heavy-bottomed pot and heat until the oil reaches 360 degrees. Line a wire rack with 2 sheets of paper towels and get your tongs out.
Put the potato starch in a bowl. Add a handful of chicken to the potato starch and toss to coat each piece evenly.
Fry the chicken in batches until the exterior is a medium brown and the chicken is cooked through. Transfer the fried chicken to the paper towel-lined rack. If you want the chicken to stay crispy longer, you can fry the chicken a second time, until it's a darker color after it's cooled off once.
Serve with lemon wedges.