It is interesting that Korean fried chicken shares an acronym with possibly the most popular fried chicken franchise in the world – Kentucky Fried Chicken. But a shared acronym isn’t the only thing these two have in common these days.
In much the same way KFC became a global franchise, Korean fried chicken too has taken the world by storm.
The trend started at ground zero in South Korea, where modern iterations of Korean fried chicken began to take shape in the 1970s, replacing samgyetang, a traditional Korean dish of chicken boiled with ginseng and rice.
By the 1990s, the national fascination with fried chicken had given birth to a cultural phenomenon – the deeply entrenched chi-maek culture (a portmanteau of the English word chicken and maekju, the Korean word for beer) which saw Koreans flocking to fried chicken joints of every stripe for an order of fried chicken and beer.
In recent times, chi-maek culture has grown exponentially. According to a 2014 research conducted by KB Financial Group, there were 31,000 Korean fried chicken outlets in the country – one for every 1,500 denizens!
Data from the intergovernmental Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development also showed that South Koreans ate 14.2kg of poultry meat each in 2015, a near three-fold increase since 1990.
The deep-fried poultry’s starring role in hit Korean television series My Love From The Star, also helped infect neighbouring China (the show has been downloaded over two billion times there!), which quickly became addicted to the bird.
In the United States, Korean fried chicken has soared and soared. Long a stronghold of the American south, international versions of fried chicken have taken off in the US, with Korean fried chicken leading the pecking order, thanks to the influx of K-chicken outlets like Bonchon as well as celebrity chef David Chang’s Momofuku impact.
These days, Korean fried chicken’s influence has flown the coop, travelling to countries like Australia, Indonesia, Taiwan and Singapore, where the trend rages on.
Interestingly, there is no distinctive one-bird-to-rule-them-all version of Korean fried chicken. You’ll find Korean fried chicken with honey glazes, soy sauce, spicy sauces and some that are just plain old fried. The sauces are never served on the side, but coat the chicken once it has emerged from the fiery heat of the oil it has been frying in.
The major distinguishing feature between American-style fried chicken and Korean fried chicken is the crust, which is delicately paper thin but satisfyingly crunchy.
This alluring exterior yields to a willingly tender, succulent interior with meat that is satisfyingly juicy. This effect is achieved by the chicken being fried not once, but twice (and sometimes even thrice!).
The chickens used for this fry-ups are traditionally smaller, which reduces the possibility of tough meat.
In Malaysia, Korean fried chicken is about to get a whole lot more interesting with the recent arrival of Chir Chir Fusion Chicken Factory, a South Korean chain of chi-maek restaurants that already has over 100 outlets in Korea, as well as outlets in Singapore, Taiwan, China and Indonesia.
The Malaysian outlet opened in Pavilion Elite a month ago and director Rodney Tan says the brand is hoping to create a stir locally.
“I think Korean fried chicken is relatively new to the Malaysian market but I also think it’s here to stay, and in this sense, Chir Chir has something unique to offer Malaysians.”
“In Korea, fried chicken is very common, so every Korean fried chicken joint has their own speciality. Where Chir Chir differs is we are a Korean fusion chicken restaurant. Therefore, we bring you Korean flavours with a lot of experimentation and fusion,” he says.
Chir Chir sources its chickens from a halal-certified poultry farm in Selangor but gets all its proprietary sauces directly from South Korea. “We bring our customers the best quality and the exact same taste as the original South Korean version,” says Tan.
The chickens are marinated for six hours and fried to order in a batter composed of wheat flour, corn starch and spices imported from South Korea.
Unlike traditional fast food joints, there are no stale supplies of fried chicken waiting for you. Instead, you’ll have to wait for the chicken – for at least 12 minutes as it is cooked fresh.
True to its poultry pedigree, Chir Chir does a crazy wide litany of fried chicken options, ranging from crispy fried chicken (RM49.90) and spicy chicken (RM56.90) to honey butter chicken (RM56.90) and garlicky chicken (RM56.90).
Portions come in either whole chickens, chicken wings or chicken tenders and although prices might seem steep initially, portions are huge and one portion could easily feed three very hungry people (or two very greedy ones).
Of the fried chicken options, the crispy fried chicken is a knockout, boasting the advertised crispy skin – a whisper thin crust that gives way to tender meat inside.
The chicken stays satisfyingly crunchy but even better, it isn’t oily, so your fingers will remain clean even as you lick the meat clean off the bone.
The spicy chicken is great if you’re a fan of feistily punchy offerings, as the sweet-spicy sauce that coats the chicken has a knock-your-socks-off potency that hits all the right notes.
If, on the other hand, you’re looking for chicken that straddles the sweet-savoury divide, the honey butter chicken is very much akin to the flavour profile of waffles.
The chicken has a lot of sweetness, which is complemented by potato wedges, fried topokki (rice cakes) and a honey butter sauce glaze.
It’s an unusual offering that isn’t to everyone’s taste, but might intrigue more adventurous eaters.
The garlicky chicken on the other hand, is finger-licking good – suitably crispy with intense garlicky flavours that complement the crunchy chook perfectly.
The restaurant also has loads of other things on offer, including beer with whipped cream (to make up the maekju equation) as well as some really delicious BBQ roasted chicken, salads, seafood and lots of cheesy offerings.
But there’s no doubt about it: it is the fried chicken that people are going to be coming – and coming back – for.
Tan says he hopes people will embrace Chir Chir’s Korean fried chicken in much the same way the international community has fallen head over heels for this poultry phenomenon, as the brand is already looking at expanding in Malaysia.
“I think chicken is something everyone can eat and fried chicken is something everyone wants to eat. So even though our fried chicken is essentially Korean, it can be shared and enjoyed by all Malaysians,” he says.
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