This is an all-time favorite of ours from our visit to Taipei and its vibrant night markets. Juicy, crunchy, and full of umami yet slightly sweet (and fiery spicy if you prefer!), this dish gave totally new meaning to popcorn chicken for me. One note on specialty ingredients: You can usually find Taiwanese white pepper salt (sometimes labeled as Taiwanese salt and pepper chicken seasoning) in Asian supermarkets, but if you're finding it hard to track down, combining 2 parts salt, 1 part white pepper and 1 part black pepper will serve as a reasonable substitute. —Cynthia Chen McTernan
4 to 6
For marinating and frying:
1 1/2 to 2 pounds
garlic cloves, minced
Shaoxing rice wine (or sake)
Chinese five-spice powder
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)
neutral-flavored oil, or enough to fill a deep-sided pot or wok 1-inch deep
Taiwanese white pepper salt (or 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon black pepper, and 1/4 teaspoon white pepper)
paprika, to taste
Chinese five-spice powder, to taste
In This Recipe
Slice chicken thighs into bite-sized pieces. In a medium bowl, toss the chicken with the minced 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 and ideally more (up to overnight).
When you’re ready to fry, mix sweet potato flour and baking powder in a medium bowl. [Sweet potato flour will work best because it has coarser bits that fry up crispier, but it’s a little hard to find. If you don’t have access to it, sweet potato starch mixed with equal parts cornmeal will work well. You could also use cornstarch or sweet rice (mochiko) flour. The latter is popular in Hawaii for a similar popcorn chicken called mochiko chicken. Either way, adding the cornmeal will give the chicken more of a crunch. If you don’t have cornmeal, you could try substituting panko.]
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. Five to 10 minutes of rest time is ideal.
To fry, heat a generous quantity of oil in a heavy-bottomed pot or 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 chicken is golden-brown, remove it and drain on paper towels.
After all the chicken is fried, 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 (see above notes if you can't find it), paprika, and five-spice powder to taste, and serve immediately.