It's always more fun to DIY. Every week, we'll spare you a trip to the grocery store and show you how to make small batches of great foods at home.
I first had Taiwanese popcorn chicken in the middle of a bustling night market in Taipei. Amid all of the culinary wonders of Taiwan’s street food paradise (braised pork rice! scallion pancakes! red bean cakes!), popcorn chicken seemed almost mundane, scooped unceremoniously into a little paper sack and handed to me by a gruff man in a worn apron. But one bite into a piping hot piece and I was hooked -- this popcorn chicken meant business.
Taiwanese popcorn chicken is juicy and bursting with umami -- no dry, stringy meat here -- and the coating is not too thick, not too crunchy, but crisp and satisfying, with just enough chew. The flavor is perfectly savory with a subtle touch of sweetness, and if you prefer, you can get the chicken coated in a fiery red pepper powder that makes the experience all the more addictive.
Because I couldn’t bear the idea of going an indeterminate amount of time before having it again, I set out to try to recreate this popcorn chicken at home. It turned out to be magically easy, with just a couple of key requirements.
First, you must use chicken thigh instead of breast to ensure moist, tender pieces of chicken. Second, it's sweet potato flour -- not starch -- that creates a coating that yields both crunch and give. If you can’t find it, mix sweet potato starch or sweet rice flour (which makes mochiko chicken, a Hawaii variant) with a bit of panko or cornmeal and you'll end up with a mixture that has a similar variation in the size of the flakes.
Finally, the chicken gets its magical umami and depth of flavor from a few special seasonings: a touch of Chinese five-spice in the marinade and a final dusting of Taiwanese white pepper salt once fried. I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find Chinese five-spice readily available in most supermarkets nowadays, and though white pepper salt may be a little more elusive, you can create your own by simply mixing two parts salt, one part white pepper, and one part black pepper.
For marinating and frying:
1 1/2 to 2 pounds chicken thighs
3 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 teaspoon minced ginger
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon Shaoxing rice wine (or sake)
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder
1 cup sweet potato flour (look for coarse sweet potato flour with flakes for better crunch, but if you can't find flour, 2/3 cup sweet potato starch, cornstarch, or sweet rice flour mixed with 1/3 cup cornmeal or panko will work)
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
2 cups neutral-flavored oil, or enough to fill a deep-sided pot or wok 1-inch deep
1 cup basil leaves
1 teaspoon Taiwanese white pepper salt (or 1/2 teaspoon salt mixed with 1/4 teaspoon black pepper and 1/4 teaspoon white pepper)
Paprika, to taste
Chinese five-spice powder, to taste
Slice chicken thighs into bite-sized pieces. In a medium bowl, toss the chicken with the garlic, ginger, soy sauce, rice wine, white and black peppers, salt, sugar, and five-spice powder until well-coated. Let marinate in the refrigerator for at least one hour or, ideally, overnight.
When you’re ready to fry, mix sweet potato flour and baking powder in a medium bowl. Dredge the chicken pieces in the flour mixture until well-coated. If needed, dredge a few times to build up a coating. Let the chicken sit for a few minutes so that the coating can adhere. You can do this while the oil is heating -- 5 to 10 minutes of rest time is ideal.
To fry, heat a generous quantity of oil in a heavy-bottomed pot or a wok to about 350 to 375° F. If you don't have a deep-fry thermometer, drop one piece of chicken into the oil to test. If it bubbles steadily, like a gentle simmer, and browns in about a minute, it's exactly right. If it boils vigorously, it's too hot, and if only a few bubbles appear, it's too cold. Fry about a cup or so of the chicken at a time. (I like to fry it in a large metal strainer so that I can lift all the chicken out at once and don't have to worry about burning. Do not overcrowd the chicken.) When the chicken is golden-brown, remove it from the oil and drain it on paper towels.
Turn the heat off and let the oil cool briefly. Pat the basil very dry and lower it gently into the oil using a metal strainer -- be very careful, as it's likely to splatter. When the basil is crisp, use the strainer to remove it, drain the basil of excess oil, and toss the leaves with the chicken.
Finally, powder the chicken with Taiwanese white pepper salt, paprika, and five-spice powder to taste, and serve immediately.
Photos by Cynthia of Two Red Bowls