This Taiwanese popcorn chicken recipe is going to change your dinner game.
Craving fried chicken? Of course you are. How about taking the plunge and frying up the humble bird in your own kitchen? Ah, now I can sense some hesitation. And with good reason.
Breaking down a whole chicken requires a good deal of elbow grease. Plus, battering and frying those large bone-in pieces can be a messy proposition. Then after putting in all that effort, you run the risk of a raw interior, a result that will literally make you sick to your stomach.
Enter Taiwanese popcorn chicken.
It has all the hallmarks of what makes fried chicken so special—tender and juicy meat, crunchy exterior, spectacular seasoning—but without the hassle.
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What Is Taiwanese Popcorn Chicken?
While you may already be familiar with popcorn chicken, the crispy boneless morsels found at KFC and other stateside fast food joints are like an acoustic rendition compared to the amped up flavor of the Taiwanese treatment. From the flavor-packed marinade to the final herb and spice flourish, this one definitely goes to 11.
It’s no wonder popcorn chicken is ubiquitous in Taiwan where it’s a street food staple and snack of choice at boba tea shops across the island.
“Popcorn chicken is everyone’s go-to,” says Kris Kuo, chef and co-owner of Taiwan Bear House which helped usher in New York’s recent Taiwanese food explosion. Kuo, who was born and raised in the southern city of Tainan, has fond memories savoring the dish at her local night market as well as at home.
“In Taiwan, every family should have their own version of popcorn chicken,” insists Kuo, whose popular rendition at Taiwan Bear House is adapted from her mother’s recipe.
If Taiwanese popcorn chicken isn’t available locally, don’t despair. It’s a cinch to make on your own and is bound to be a hit with the whole family.
If you’re a fan of white meat, by all means go breast, but dark meat tends to be the standard for Taiwanese popcorn chicken. “The thigh is juicier and more tender,” says Kuo.
To prep, simply cut your chicken into bite-sized boneless pieces.
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“Flavor on flavor on flavor” should be your mantra when it comes to bathtime for your chicken. For seasoning, five spice powder is an essential addition for its complexity while white is the pepper shade of choice to provide some heat.
Green onion can also be added to the mix to bring out the sweetness of the chicken.
On the liquid front, you’ll often find a blend of rice wine (not to be confused with the tangier rice vinegar) and soy sauce. (It’s no surprise Kuo prefers Taiwanese soy sauce which is more savory than the familiar Japanese version.)
While Kuo opts for an overnight marinade, the chicken will begin to lock in those flavors after only a few minutes.
Stasher Reusable Silicone Bags, $9.99-$19.99 from The Container Store
For an overnight soak, these are a great alternative to the usual plastic bags.
The end game for any Taiwanese popcorn chicken is always the same: Make it crunchy! But there are few different ways to achieve that goal. The most common coating is potato or sweet potato starch, preferred for imparting a neutral flavor while ensuring an extra crispy exterior.
You can go all-in on the starch or call for reinforcements. Kuo prefers a blend of sticky rice flour, all-purpose flour, and potato starch which she mixes with a dab of water and tosses directly into her marinade. (Make sure to keep each piece separated as they will tend to stick together.) Now you’re ready to fry. Use chopsticks or tongs to flip the pieces after about three minutes.
For extra crispy chicken, cool your nuggets for a minute, then coat them with another layer of starch before dipping them back into the hot oil for an additional three minutes.
Another signature of Taiwanese popcorn chicken is a generous sprinkling of fried Thai basil which provides an extra herbal touch and an explosion of aroma. (If you only have access to Italian basil, use that instead.)
Taiwanese popcorn chicken isn’t complete without a final dose of five spice powder. Sprinkle after the fry and enjoy!
Chinese Five Spice Powder, $6 from Raw Spice Bar
Try this blend, or make your own at home.
Weeknight 30 Minute Taiwanese Popcorn Chicken
This simple recipe will provide quick satisfaction to scratch that Taiwanese popcorn chicken itch. Feel free to substitute mirin or sake for rice wine and Italian basil for the Thai variety. If potato starch isn’t already in your pantry, it’s available on Amazon.
Weeknight Taiwanese Popcorn Chicken
- 2 lbs chicken thighs, cut into bite-sized pieces
- 5 garlic cloves, minced
- 4 scallions (green and white parts), thinly sliced
- ¼ cup soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons rice wine
- 2 tablespoons five spice powder, with extra for seasoning
- 1 teaspoon white pepper
- ½ cup potato starch
- ½ cup all-purpose flour
- Vegetable oil
- A handful of fresh Thai basil leaves
- Marinate the chicken thighs, garlic, scallions, soy sauce, rice wine or sake, five spice powder and white pepper for at least 15 minutes (or overnight).
- Heat approximately ½ inch of vegetable oil on the highest setting possible in a large, heavy skillet.
- Whisk the potato starch and flour together in a small bowl. Individually coat each piece of chicken thigh in the flour mixture and set onto a plate to keep each piece separated for frying.
- Carefully drop each chicken piece into the hot oil and fry for about 3 minutes. Use chopsticks to flip and fry for an additional 3 minutes.
- In the last 30 seconds of the fry, add the basil leaves. Due to the moisture in the basil leaves, use caution when adding them to hot oil. A splatter guard is recommended.
- Let the chicken and basil dry on a paper towel-lined plate, then serve immediately.
A Very Different Chicken Dish
Header image courtesy of Sarah Gardner