Frying chicken is a messy business but always a worthwhile one, though I did wonder a little when I woke up the next morning and smelled fried chicken in my hair.
For this last Korean Food Sunday, the menu was as follows: my mom’s fried chicken, fried sweet potatoes, seaweed soup, tangpyeongchae or mung bean jelly salad, cubes of pickled white radish, sautéed anchovies, dried radish strips tossed in a spicy sauce, and kimchi, as always.
It was only the second time I’d tried making this fried chicken. It’s an interesting recipe, involving a batter made only of potato flour and water. The chicken gets seasoned earlier, with lots of garlic, green onions, salt, pepper, and a drizzle of sesame oil. Making the batter is like walking a tightrope—too little water, and the whole thing solidifies like cement. Too much, and you feel like nothing is getting coated on the chicken. But as finicky as the batter feels, it isn’t really. Even a glaze of potato starch batter on your chicken will crisp up instantly.
It was the first time I’d tried frying the chicken with a candy thermometer attached, and I was also surprised to see that the best frying temperature seemed to be about 250-275 degrees Fahrenheit, about 50-75 degrees less than usual recommended temperature for fried chicken. At about 350 degrees, the garlic on the chicken burnt to a crisp and the potato flour batter got scarily dark instead of staying light and golden. The lower temperature might also work since the recipe calls for wings, small pieces of chicken that cook up quickly. I have no scientific reasoning to back me up, only that I know that it works.
A little Googling revealed that there are lots of recipes for making fried chicken with potato starch, in the Japanese karaage-style, but no one does what my mother does, which is to add water. Just potato starch is definitely something to try next time, though the splattering can really be minimized if you use a nice, deep Dutch oven.
This time, I also battered and fried slices of Asian sweet potatoes, which taste like chestnuts and fry up beautifully. I’m sure some people would season them with salt, but I like the very simple, almost wholesome flavor of plain fried sweet potatoes. My friends liked them, too, maybe almost as much as the chicken.
The cubes of pickled white radish were completely experimental. I came home from the farm late on Saturday night, stressed and a little overwhelmed by my life, but I had already bought the radishes earlier that week and I really wanted something light, bright, and not-spicy to eat with the fried chicken, like the sweet and simple 무, or muh, they sell at Korean fried chicken places. It turns out cutting up radish cubes at 11 pm is very therapeutic, as are two glasses of wine. I couldn’t find a recipe, so I salted the cubes with as much salt as I would for kkakdugi, or spicy radish cubes, and added about a cup of vinegar, 2 tablespoons of sugar, and enough water to cover it all. The flavor wasn’t quite the same, but I liked that you could taste more of the slight natural bitterness of Korean radishes with the easy sweetness of the sugared vinegar.
Because I had to fry the chicken in batches, I spent most of the dinner standing by the stove, with my back to the table, passing chicken and sweet potatoes behind me every 10 minutes or so. But I could still hear people saying things like, “This is delicious!’ and “How did you get it to be so crispy?” One friend had been in Portland, Maine, and when his flight on Sunday got cancelled, he jumped on a bus to get back in time for the chicken. When he promised me that it was just as good as the last time he’d tasted it, when another friend who calls herself a vegetarian kept eating wing after wing, I felt very gratified.
I’m still learning how to cook for a crowd. Nine people don’t eat as much as eleven, and I still have almost 4 lbs. of chicken thighs in the freezer, already marinated and only momentarily relieved from their deep-fat destiny. I’m not so good at taking notes for recipe development when I’m harried about a dinner party, and I was so worried over the chicken, I forgot to taste the mung bean jelly salad with all its vegetable accompaniments. I can tell you now the photos of these dinners will always be haphazard.
But it is a lot of fun to feed people.