Some people comically call Korean fried chicken “the other KFC” but Colonel Sanders would not recognize these super crispy pieces of deep fried wonders coated in spicy-sweet-tangy-sesame-seed-inflected-goopy sauce. I’ve been hooked on perfecting this chicken dish over the past two months, making it eight (8) times altogether. (I had to pace myself in between attempts, or I’d become as big as a house!)
The source of my obsession? I first tasted Korean fried chicken in 2006 but recently focused on coming up with an excellent rendition because frankly, I was trying to use up a big tub of Korean chile paste (gojuchang) that I’d purchased during a Korean market tour with some friends. I'd made Korean-Vietnamese grilled pork belly and lettuce wraps with the chile paste multiple times but those meals barely put a dent in the kilo of gojuchang in my fridge. Don’t get me wrong because I love the stuff and just don’t want to let it go to waste.
Paging through Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee’s new cookbook, Quick and Easy Korean Cooking, I spotted a Korean fried chicken recipe (titled “Seasoned Fried Chicken”). I adore fried chicken and noticed that the recipe called for a good 3 tablespoons of the chile paste. I tried Cecilia’s recipe out, and her onion and garlic marinade was nice and so was the chile sauce, which I doubled because it was addictively good. The batter, however, didn’t produce the extra crisp coating that’s characteristic of Korean fried chicken. You need that coating for the chicken to stand up to the thickish weight of the sauce.
At a Korean dinner party, I asked everyone to contribute their insights. Linda Lim, the hostess, said that Korean fried chicken is a typical bar snack, served with cubes of tangy Korean radish and lots of soju and/or beer. Korean food expert Hyunjoo Albrecht suggested double frying to get the crispiest coating. Sylvia Lee, a second-generation Korean-American, called up her mom, Mrs. Jo Lee, in Chicago and got their family’s recipe, which Sylvia claimed made fabulous Korean fried chicken.
Mrs. Lee’s chicken employed soaking the chicken wings in milk, a technique that she picked up from African-American colleagues at the hospital where she worked. For her chile sauce, Mrs. Lee surprisingly didn't use the gojuchang chile paste, but instead created a fresh sauce from raw chiles, ginger, garlic, and Korean barley malt syrup, which thickened the sauce; her sauce was akin to a Southeast Asian sambal and proved to be a tasty alternative for people without access to Korean chile paste. Additionally, Mrs. Lee coated the chicken in a special Korean fry batter coating mix before frying it – kind of like traditional American fried chicken. Her Korean-African-American-Southeast-Asian approach put a smile on my face because it reflected the culinary ingenuity of immigrant cooks in America and the chicken was finger licking good.
The Korean fried chicken recipe below combines all the Korean-American wisdom that I’ve gathered over the past months to produce a crisp-tender crust on the chicken and nicely nuanced sauce that’s neither cloyingly sweet nor overly spicy. I’ve dissected and mimicked the Korean fry batter mix that Mrs. Lee uses and turned it into a batter. As for the chile sauce, both versions are below for your choosing. Either way, you’ll enjoy the results.
Korean Fried Chicken
I like to use bone-in thighs for this recipe as they’ve got extra flavor. If you choose to use boneless, skinless chicken thighs, you’ll need about 2 pounds for this recipe, which would then be enough for 6 people. Korean malt barley syrup and chile paste are available mostly at Korean markets. Siempo brand of Korean chile paste is my preferred brand; to help you find teh paste, check out the photo of the Siempo label in this page (scroll down the page).
8 chicken thighs
1 yellow onion, grated (use largest hole on the grater)
2 cloves garlic, minced and crushed into a paste
Scant 1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/2 cup all-purpose bleached or unbleached flour
2/3 cup cornstarch
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
3/4 cup cold water (ice it before measuring)
Chile sauce option 1:
6 tablespoons Korean chile paste (gojuchang)
6 tablespoons ketchup
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup toasted white (hulled) sesame seeds
2 to 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Chile sauce option 2:
3 tablespoons chopped garlic
3 tablespoons chopped fresh ginger
6 large red chiles, such as Fresno or Holland, seeded and roughly chopped
2 tablespoons canola oil
3 to 4 tablespoons light (regular) soy sauce
2 tablespoons packed brown sugar
3 to 4 tablespoons Korean barley malt syrup (mool yut) or light corn syrup
1. Remove the skin from each chicken thigh, then trim off some of the excess fat. Use a cleaver to whack each thigh in half. To do so, lay each thigh flatter side facing up and bone parallel to your cutting board. Visualize a vertical line in the middle and then go for it! Set aside.
2. Combine the grated onion, garlic, salt, and pepper in bowl. Add the chicken and coat well. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside to marinate at room temperature for 1 hours, or refrigerate overnight, letting the chicken sit out for 30 minutes to remove the chill before frying.
3. For the batter, combine the flour, cornstarch, baking powder, salt, pepper, and sugar in a bowl. Make a well in the center and whisk in the water to create a thick, smooth batter. Stop whisking as soon as the ingredients have come together. It will seem somewhat gluey. Set aside.
4. Make the chile sauce of your choice. For option 1, in a large bowl, stir together the Korean chile paste, ketchup, sugar, sesame seeds, and lemon juice. Taste and adjust the flavors as needed to arrive at a spicy-sweet-tangy finish. Set aside.
For chile sauce option 2, combine the garlic, ginger, and chiles in a mini-food processor and chop to a fine texture. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat and fry the chile mixture for 1 to 2 minutes, until fragrant. Add the sugar, soy sauce, and barley malt syrup (or corn syrup) and cook for about 30 seconds to combine and slightly thicken. Remove from the heat and set aside.
5. Pour the oil into a 5-quart Dutch oven to a depth of 1 1/2 inches. Heat over high heat to 350F degrees; stick a dry chopstick in and bubbles should immediately rise to the top and surround the chopstick. Meanwhile, pour off the liquid that has accumulated in the bowl of marinated chicken. Set the chicken, batter, and a platter lined with a triple layer of paper towels near the stove.
Fry the chicken in batches of about 6 pieces at a time. Using chopsticks or two forks, dip each piece of chicken in the batter, pausing above the batter to let excess batter drip back down. Gently drop the chicken into the oil and fry for 5 to 7 minutes, turning occasionally, until golden brown and crisp. Drain on the paper towel-lined platter. Repeat with the remaining chicken, adjusting the oil temperature between batches.
The crispy coating softens a touch during cooling so when all the pieces are done, increase the oil temperature to 375F and refry the chicken in batches for 30 to 60 seconds, until super crisp. Drain once more on the paper towel.
6. Now coat the chicken in the sauce. If you’re using sauce option 1, working in batches of about 4 pieces at a time. Put the chicken pieces in the bowl and use a rubber spatula to coat them in sauce. Transfer to a serving plate before coating more chicken.
If you’ve made Mrs. Lee’s sauce, reheat the sauce over medium heat until it is liquid again, adding some water to facilitate things if the mixture has thickened too much as it sat. Then add the chicken, about 6 pieces at a time and turn gently with a rubber spatula to coat. Transfer to a platter. Regardless of sauce choice, serve immediately.
Note: Chile sauce option 1 was adapted from Quick and Easy Korean Cooking by Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee. Chile sauce option 2 was adapted adapted from recipe by Mrs. Jo Lee of Chicago, IL.
Wine Paring Tip from Roberto Rogness of WineExpo.com:
Try the chicken with some good dry but spicy Rosé / Rosado / Rosato (sparkling even) and achieve enlightenment directly.
Have any personal twists or insights on Korean fried chicken? Got a favorite place to go for the other KFC and a drink? Feel free to weigh in!