Neither fast food nor chilli sits well with me, but there is one kind of spicy KFC that I am always game for: Korean Fried Chicken.
Korean fried chicken is South Korea’s finger-licking gift to the rest of the globe, possibly inspired by the Colonel Sanders’ chain entering the country during the ’80s. But “yangnyum chikin” or Korean-style “seasoned chicken” hatches a very different sort of crust than the jagged, battered one of American-style fried chicken. You can peel away the thick blanket of fried batter smothering American fried chicken, but the crisp saucy veneer over yangnyum chikin is so thin that it is virtually inseparable.
During my past life in New York, I would wait outside the door of Bonchon Chicken on Fifth Avenue, a hungry sheep in a line of more hungry submissive sheep. New Yorkers queue for everything—and the queue exponentially increases your anticipation for whatever may be dished out at the head of the line. In the case of Bonchon, it was the ultimate late-night, post-party snack: double-fried crisp chicken painted in the sauce of your choice -- soy garlic or spicy.
Spicy is the right way to go. Koreans use a thick spice paste called gochujang which is one of the mother sauces of their cuisine and the primary reason why their yangnyum chikin is dangerously irresistible. I have never seen gochujang being sold in tubs smaller than 500 grams, an occurrence that might best be explained by the official Visit Korea tourism website: “Koreans love the spicy taste of gochujang and often eat it as part of a meal when they feel stressed out or down in the dumps.”
The primary ingredient of gochujang is the Korean red pepper, ‘gochu,’ paired with glutinous rice, fermented soybean paste and salt. On the Scoville scale of spiciness where a jalapeno agitates between 2,500 to 4,000 units and a habanero shrieks between 100,000 to 300,000 units, ‘gochu’ softly whispers in below 1,000 units. Maybe this is why the Visit Korea site suggests using gochujang “to dip a green chilli pepper in,” though I personally lean towards their more appetizing suggestion of spooning it over “a bowl of bibimbap piled high with vegetables.” Stirred in with a runny yolk, sushi rice, shiitake, carrots, spinach and sprouts, this salty, umami condiment becomes the delicious connective tissue between the disparate ingredients within the bibimbap stone pot.
Incidentally, there is no good substitute for the flavour of gochujang but it is available online as well as at Hanarum, the Korean grocery store in Karama. What is also available in Karama is a deadly addictive platter of yangnyum chicken at the 17-year-old South Korean restaurant, Seoul Garden. On my last visit, we feasted on braised beef and mussels, boiled mantoo (dumplings), pickled beetroot, rice-encrusted pots of Bibimbap, sausages drenched in funky kimchi broth and glassy noodles tangled with vegetables. But the star of the meal was undoubtedly the yangnyum chicken, an order that had to be replenished with a second platter midway through our gluttony. Yangnyum chicken cannot be mistaken for a main dish, but rather, it is akin to popping supremely seasoned nachos on the side of your meal. You never keep count. And you end up eating far too much.
For restaurants that bust out chicken yangnyum style, a gochujang-based sauce is not their only move. The crispy beat of this chicken is played out by coating the chicken chunks in corn or potato starch and then deep frying them twice over. As I learned from a two-hour detour while writing this column, there is enough scientific analysis at the molecular level behind double dipping in hot oil to leave your brains feeling quite fried, so let me leave it at this: Double-frying is more effective at expelling moisture and giving the lightly battered chicken its invincible “snap.” (For a more exhaustive analysis, switch on your out-of-office message and google “why double fry.”)
Another hot spot for Korean fried chicken is Hyu Korean, the invisible restaurant in a no-name corner of Oud Metha that was closed and resurrected in JLT. I have fond memories of ploughing through a hill of saucy popcorn chicken two years ago at the original location. But the dish was called “dakgangjeong,” which the owner Annie claims she used to enjoy in Korea far before yangnyum chicken rocked the food charts.
Dakgangjeong is a combination of two words: ‘dak’ or chicken and ‘gangjeong’ which is a Korean confectionary technique applied to sweet snacks that are deep fried and coated with sticky sweet syrup, quite like brittle or rice crispies. Hyu’s dakgangjeong are boneless dark meat fritters polished with a sauce of gochu powder, garlic, fermented soybean paste and mulyeot (corn syrup). After a heart-to-heart talk with Annie about the differences between crispy-sweet-sticky-spicy yangnyum chicken and crispy-sweet-sticky-spicy dakgangjeong, I put the phone down convinced that the two are near identical twins. It would take a Korean mother to know the subtle but significant differences – and she would be lying if she said she didn’t have a favourite.
But coming back to the Bonchon Chicken of my New York days, the franchise eventually opened its doors in Dubai a few years ago and then shortly after, rebranded itself as Kimchikin. Kimchikin is one of the few fast food chains you could catch me at red-handed. Literally, because chopsticks will never match the momentum of my dexterous bare fingers when faced with a glossy sauce-drenched pile of Korean fried chicken.