Chickened Out: Kara-age, Tatsuta-age, and More
February 20, 2017
For some, Japanese food is an indulgence best enjoyed in the rarified ambience of a serene tatami room, complete with soft koto music, demure servers, and delicate dishes so beautiful they bring sensitive diners to tears. While this sort of meditative dining experience is well worth having at least once, Japanese food isn’t all fussy, ornamental, low-calorie elegance. On the contrary, the Japanese love their comfort food, and it’s from bubbling hot oil that many of these workaday favorites emerge. Not light, delicate tempura, the pampered prince of the fryer. No, I’m talking about rolling up your sleeves after a rough day at work, drowning you sorrows with a frosty drink, and tucking in to a sizzling plate of deep-fried chicken. From your kitchen, to the izakaya, even the convenience store, deep-fried chicken is everywhere.
Just be careful what you call it.
Tori no kara-age is chicken. Tori no kara-age is fried. But when Japanese people hear “fried chicken”, they are bound to imagine a bucket of crispy, coated wings and drumsticks – the pride of America’s deep South, and the scourge of waistlines worldwide. As a home-grown favorite, fried chicken boasts countless permutations, but whether it’s breaded, battered, or floured, it is almost always bone-in. Kara-age, on the other hand, uses smaller, boneless pieces of chicken, most commonly thigh meat. Another distinction has to do with the preparation. With fried chicken, the orthodoxy seems to be that the meat itself isn’t seasoned. Rather, any flavoring, seasoning, or spice is added to the coating before frying. Kara-age, if it’s flavored at all, is marinated prior to coating and frying.
Sound simple? Not so fast.
Considering that, like many casual dishes, the kara-age we eat today has evolved over several hundred years and traveled countless miles, it is probably best to understand it as an umbrella term for a way of cooking, rather than a specific recipe. Although overwhelmingly associated with chicken, the kara-age “method” can be used to cook seafood and vegetables as well.
This “method” is pretty simple: the main ingredient, be it chicken, squid, or a piece of burdock root, is coated in potato starch, corn starch, flour, or a combination of these, then fried in hot oil. The finished product should be crispy on the outside, soft and moist on the inside.
The rather loose orthodoxy surrounding the kara-age method lends itself to a great many variations. While kara-age can be plain and unseasoned, it’s not unusual to find it flavored with soy sauce, garlic, ginger, or even curry. It bears repeating that, unlike “fried chicken”, this flavoring is soaked directly into the meat as a marinade.
Things can get a bit complicated, though, depending on who you ask. Combine the ingredients in a certain way, and your kara-age may cease to be kara-age at all, at least in the eyes of some. This especially applies to tatsuta-age, an offshoot of kara-age soaked in a soy sauce-based marinade, coated with katakuriko (potato starch), then deep fried until crisp. The marinade creates a lovely reddish-brown crust, which is said to conjure images of the beautiful red autumn leaves along the Tatsuta River bank in Nara Prefecture. What tends to cause confusion is that while kara-age may be marinated and may be coated in potato starch, tatsuta-age is always marinated and always coated in potato starch. Add to this the fact that these days, marinated kara-age is most common, and you may be hard-pressed to tell the difference. Fortunately, getting to the bottom of this conundrum is almost certain to be delicious.
Now that we’ve separated “fried chicken” from “kara-age”, and nearly accomplished the same with “tatsuta-age”, it might be a good time for a quick peek at a few other members of the “-age” family from around Japan.
The Northern island of Hokkaido’s version of kara-age takes its name from a variation on a Chinese word for fried chicken. Notably, it can be made with either boneless or bone-in chicken. As with “standard” kara-age, many variations can be found, but zangi is generally marinated, coated in a thick, crispy batter, and often served with a peppery dipping sauce.
Nagoya is known for its unique takes on familiar Japanese dishes, and tebasaki is a delicious example of this. Bone-in chicken wings are sprinkled lightly with starch, deep fried, then basted with sauce and seasoned with salt, pepper, and sesame seeds.
Kyushu, the most southwesterly of Japan’s four main islands, is often credited with introducing the rest of Japan to the wonders of kara-age. How accurate this is, I’m sure, is bound to be debated, but Kyushu does have a great many kara-age shops. Oita Prefecture’s toriten (chicken tempura) is a unique mash-up. In this dish, boneless marinated chicken is coated in the same wheat flour used for tempura before frying. It is usually served as a side dish, most commonly as a topping for udon noodles!
Chicken nanban (Miyazaki)
Hailing again from Kyushu, that hotbed of kara-age culture, this popular, tangy variation is dipped in sweet vinegar after frying, then topped with tartar sauce.
Gurukun no kara-age (Okinawa)
Gurukun is Okinawa’s official and most popular fish, best eaten in summer. Sometimes referred to as “banana fish”, the gurukun is lightly battered, deep fried whole until crisp and served with a slice of lemon.
I love it, you love it, we all love it. This love for deep-fried chicken in all its forms has led to a virtually endless array of configurations and customizations. This may be brilliant news for chicken lovers, but less so for one attempting to write a brief, yet definitive guide to the genre. So be warned: for every “rule” that exists in this deep-fried wilderness, exceptions, overlaps, and delicious grey areas can and will be found. The best I can offer is a rough map – second-hand retellings from self-professed authorities – scrawled on a well-used izakaya napkin. This will send you out into the world, to better enjoy your own (ahem) research.
Text: Marcus Hutchings