I was not raised in a deep-frying household. My parents are generally health-conscious, and by nature suspicious of any amount of oil that would approach a “vat”. It was to my great surprise, then, when I discovered in recent years that I have an affinity – maybe even a knack – for frying.
It started small: shallow-fried goujons, mozzarella sticks. Then I got bolder: deep-fried jackfruit. Deep-fried Mars Bars. Whole chicken thighs; fish for tacos. Even deep-fried mince pies. As much as the thought of a big pot of screaming-hot oil might be intimidating, watching items bubble up and dance as they turn from wan to burnished gold is about as much fun as it’s possible to have in a kitchen.
You can imagine how I felt, then, when Sue Li’s recipe for Taiwanese Popcorn Chicken with Fried Basil in New York Times Cooking suddenly started popping up on friends’ feeds a few weeks back. This is an accessible way to make fried chicken: The pieces are small and cook quickly (no fears of overly tough meat or undercooked centres here), have a beguiling savouriness from the soy sauce and a complex fragrance from the Chinese five-spice. And their tapioca-flour coating makes them irresistibly crunchy. (Tapioca flour, often sold as tapioca starch, is readily available in Asian grocery stores.)
In the accompanying video, Li talks about how the dish reminds her of, and feeds her homesickness for, Taiwan’s night markets. The one concession to my own tastes was adding a highly non-traditional dipping sauce of mayonnaise, lime, garlic and a bit of turmeric for earthiness and colour – I like a creamy sauce with a fresh, acidic tang as a counterpoint to the chicken’s savoury glory.
Something else I love about this dish: It is a perfect complement to a juicy New England IPA. I’d been hearing good things about Lewes’ new Abyss Brewing for a little while now and its Zen Level II New England IPA is packed with luscious pineapple and tropical fruit flavours that harmonise elegantly with the basil in this dish. Best of all, unlike some other examples of the style, this juicy IPA has enough bitterness to cut through the oil and salt of the chicken. If you’re new to deep-frying at home, tongs at the ready, and take courage: Treat that pot of oil with care and respect and it will deliver you a meal worth rhapsodising over.
Taiwanese-Style Popcorn Chicken
Adapted from New York Times Cooking
For the chicken:
700g chicken thigh fillets, cut into 1-inch pieces
2 tablespoons light soy sauce
2 teaspoons sugar
1 ½ teaspoons Chinese five-spice powder
1 teaspoon ground white pepper
3 teaspoons fine sea salt
1 tablespoon Sichuan peppercorns or whole black peppercorns
115 grams tapioca flour/starch
1 ½ litres vegetable oil
30g fresh Thai basil leaves
For the dipping sauce:
6 tablespoons mayonnaise (preferably Kewpie)
1 teaspoon minced garlic
½ teaspoon turmeric
Juice of ½ lime
1. First, marinate the chicken. Place the chicken pieces in a medium bowl and add the soy sauce, sugar, five-spice powder, white pepper and 1 ½ teaspoons of salt. Mix until evenly coated. Cover and chill for anywhere between 1-4 hours. Remove from the fridge at least 30 minutes before you wish to cook.
2. Meanwhile, prepare the pepper seasoning. Using a mortar and pestle or spice grinder, grind the Sichuan (or black) peppercorns coarsely. Mix with the remaining 1 ½ teaspoons of salt and set aside.
3. Next, make the dipping sauce. Add all ingredients to a ramekin or small bowl and mix until evenly combined. Set aside.
4. Right before you’re ready to cook, add the tapioca flour/starch to your chicken. Add two tablespoons of water and mix with wet hands, or until the chicken pieces are evenly coated in the flour. The water should cause the tapioca to form small beads, which will make the chicken extra crunchy.
5. When ready to cook, add your vegetable oil to a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan and clip a deep-frying thermometer to the side. Place over medium-high heat. Wait until the oil comes to 180° Celsius/350° Fahrenheit. (If not using a thermometer, wait until a small sample pinch of flour sizzles rapidly when added to the oil).
6. Cook the popcorn chicken in batches so as not to overcrowd the pan; I fried a maximum of 8 pieces at a time. Using tongs or a spider strainer, flip the chicken and make sure the pieces aren’t sticking together. Cook for roughly 5 minutes, or until the chicken is evenly golden-brown and cooked through; keep an eye on the thermometer and adjust the heat accordingly to keep it steady. Transfer to a paper-towel-lined plate and repeat with the remaining batches. (To keep the cooked chicken warm while the rest fries, you can turn your oven to its lowest setting and transfer the chicken to a baking sheet, if preferred.)
7. Once all the chicken is fried, fry the basil leaves. Add to the oil using tongs and take care – the moisture content in the basil means it can spit quite dramatically when entering the hot oil. Fry for 1-2 minutes, or until the leaves are darkened in colour and crisp. Turn off the heat, remove from the oil and drain on the paper towel.
8. To serve, divide the chicken pieces between plates and season with the peppercorn and salt mix. Gently top with the fried basil leaves and serve with dipping sauce on the side.
Claire M. Bullen is a professional food and travel writer, a beerhound and all-around lover of tasty things. When she's not cracking open a cold one, she's probably cooking up roasted lamb with hummus. Or chicken laksa. Or pumpkin bread. You can follow her at @clairembullen.