Growing up, chef David Kuo and his brothers played video games in a converted garage in the family’s backyard in West Covina, California. Just outside, loofah gourds, garlic chives, sweet potato leaves and other Taiwanese favorites grew in his grandmother’s vegetable garden.
But Mr. Kuo’s father often came home late from work with a bucket of fried chicken from church, and they dug in while wrestling pixelated figures on the screen.
The bony pieces were different from the fried chicken styles Kuo encountered at street vendor stalls during family visits to Taiwan: yan su ji, boneless popcorn chicken studded with fried basil leaves, and da ji pai, boneless breast chops. Marinated in soy sauce, rice wine, often garlic, and always five-spice powder, then covered in coarse sweet potato starch, fried and finished with a dusting of white pepper, Taiwanese fried chicken is typically served in paper bags, without sauce, for an easy on-the-go snack.
at mr. Kuo’s Los Angeles restaurant, Little Fatty, makes the poultry on the menu feel familiar, yet distinctive. With a nod to his Taiwanese roots, his American childhood and his gastronomic background, Mr. Kuo small pieces of popcorn quail with bone, topped with fried basil, with spicy mayo for dipping.
“It symbolizes Taiwanese cuisine, of course, but for me it brings back memories,” he said. “Eating something with bones in front of the TV was the ultimate pleasure.”
Interest in Taiwanese cuisine is rising in the United States, with cookbooks describing cuisine on the horizon and new stores and pop-ups opening left and right. Taiwanese fried chicken, a cultural tent pole, finds a wider audience of diners and sells out in restaurants in the process. The crispy, aromatic chicken, often found popcorn-style in boba stores across the United States, is gaining a foothold in the American culinary landscape amid a fried chicken fervor: fast-food chains vie for the title of best crispy chicken sandwich. You can find Korean fried chicken chains on college campuses. Indian fried chicken sandwiches draw crowds and inspire raving reviews in New York City.
mr. Kuo belongs to a generation of Taiwanese American chefs who adapt this night market decor to their own upbringing and taste. They stuff Taiwanese fried chicken into sandwiches and steamed buns, serve it on sliced white bread with pickles, and drizzle it with sauces in recognition of regional American specialties and their life experiences.
At Java Saga in Atlanta, Alvin Sun serves four different Taiwanese fried chicken sandwiches, the most popular of which is the ABC: Southern-style coleslaw, sweet pickles, American jalapeño cheese, and habanero mango sauce atop what he calls his Taiwan No. 1 fried chicken breast. Customers love it whether or not they have a clue of what Taiwanese fried chicken should be.
“As long as they have an interest in trying it, they seem to like it,” Mr. Sun said.
When he opened his restaurant in 2020, Mr. Sun was obsessed with Nashville hot chicken, sampling variations from chains like Hattie B’s and Gus’s, and watching videos on how to prepare it. Inspired by the regional specialty, Java Saga also serves a version of the No. 1 cutlet slathered in a cayenne pepper-based “lava” sauce atop a slice of brown sugar toast and sweet pickles.
“It’s not something you can find in Taiwan,” he said, “and some of our customers say, ‘Taiwan doesn’t have this – but this is really good.'”
For purists, it still offers straightforward dark meat nuggets and a brisket cutlet, in the styles of yan su ji and da ji pai.
Java Saga’s chicken recipe is widely visited and closely guarded: Mr. Sun adapted it from the recipe his mother and kitchen worker, Amy Lee, used to prepare hundreds of pounds of yan su ji for Atlanta’s Lunar New Year festival when he was in high school. She, in turn, had adapted the recipe from a friend who had a fried chicken business in Taichung, Taiwan.
It might be tempting to conclude that Taiwanese fried chicken evolved from Japanese fried chicken styles such as karaage and katsu, given the Japanese colonization of Taiwan from 1895 to 1945. But the history of Taiwanese fried chicken is quite contemporary, said Katy Hui-wen Hung. , a co-author of “A Culinary History of Taipei.”
Yan su ji dates back to the 1970s night markets, around the time Taiwanese chain TKK Fried Chicken, modeled after Southern-style chicken thighs, was founded. As the prominence of fried chicken grew in the country’s urban food scene in the 1980s, American chains like KFC spread throughout Taiwan. Da ji pai did not become a popular street food until the 1990s.
“Spaghetti, fried chicken and pizza were the kind of things young Taiwanese go for, as a treat,” Ms Hung said.
Traditionally, Taiwanese fried chicken is not dipped in a wet batter, and according to some Taiwanese American chefs, it is not Taiwanese fried chicken if it is not lightly coated with sweet potato starch, which creates an irresistibly crispy crust. And characteristic of the popcorn chicken style are those deep jade crystalline shards of fried basil that garnish the bite-sized pieces.
Many of today’s Taiwanese American chefs are eager to individualize their yan su ji and dai ji pan while evoking nostalgia for the classics. Eric Sze, the chef and owner of 886 and WenWen in New York City, does just that in a few ways.
There’s the popcorn chicken drenched in a hot honey glaze at both restaurants, and the Notorious TFC sandwich at 886: a da ji pai-style brisket on a toasted sesame seed bun (inspired by the 2000 debut of a fried chicken sandwich in a Taipei McDonald’s) with pickled daikon and carrot (a hat for a vegetable condiment at the Vietnamese restaurant Madame Vo, in Manhattan’s East Village), and house-made seamount sauce (a tomato-y condiment served with oyster omelets in Taiwan).
And then there’s the BDSM fried chicken (brine, deboned, soy milk) at WenWen, which opened in March in the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn. The elaborate plate defies convention: It’s a very young chicken with legs intact, dredged in an airy, wet batter of whipped silken tofu, soy milk, and sweet potato starch that forms a brittle, light crust. The fried bird is cut into crispy strips for easy eating.
Mr. Sze says life in New York City has given him endless inspiration for reinventing the classics.
“To see the limitlessness of cuisines and just kind of brazen stealing from other cultures — that’s what’s being done all over the world,” said Mr. sze.
If someone in their restaurants complains about the rendition, it could be because they can’t get enough. The dish is always sold out before 6 pm
Other chefs romp on Taiwanese fried chicken while incorporating influences from outside the island and the United States. Before his grandfather died in 2009, Erik Bruner-Yang spent a lot of time in Taiwan visiting him, and then decided that he would become a chef.
“I’m in my early twenties and I realize I’m half-Asian and a military brat, and I was having a weird self-crisis,” said Mr. Bruner-Yang. “What part of my culture is important to me? I started using cooking as a way to find out.”
At Maketto, his restaurant and cafe in Washington, DC, Mr. Bruner-Yang wanted to reflect his background and his wife’s Cambodian heritage in the menu. Fish sauce is added to the five spice infused mala caramel that generously coats a large chunk of baked bottled chicken breast. The dish is served with toasted slices of white bread in tribute to the restaurant’s former neighbor, the revered chip shop Horace & Dickie’s.
“Initially, the dish was called Taiwanese fried chicken,” says Bruner-Yang. “Now it’s just called Maketto fried chicken.”
This moment is especially important for chefs like Katie Liu-Sung, who has been cooking professionally since she was 16. Her first job was at a Church’s Chicken in Taichung, Taiwan, where she lived after spending her early childhood in Southern California. The Texas-born fried chicken chain had locations all over Taiwan in the 1980s and 1990s, and she worked at a few of them over the years, following their chicken and cookie baking formulas.
Ms. Liu-Sung is now the executive chef and owner of Chewology, a Taiwanese restaurant in Kansas City, Mo., that serves a classic rendition of popcorn chicken, as well as a steamed bun with Taiwanese fried chicken, cucumber pickles, and chili mayo. .
“There’s no limit to what we have to put on the menu, and that’s starting to get really inspiring,” Ms. Liu-Sung said. “If people really accept that here, I think it’s really nice.”
One night this year, a woman walked into the restaurant and began to burst into tears. The smell of freshly fried Taiwanese fried chicken permeating the room made her emotional, she told Ms. Liu-Sung.
“Because it reminded her of home.”
Recipe: Taiwanese Popcorn Chicken With Fried Basil
And to drink…
Few things go better with fried chicken than champagne or a sparkling facsimile. That even applies to this dish, flavored with five-spice powder and soy. The frying replaces the flavoring. See for yourself. Or try a good cava or crémant. Not in the mood for sparkling wine? Riesling would be wonderful whether dry or a moderately sweet specimen such as a cabinet or spätlese from Germany. Other white wines such as chenin blanc or sauvignon blanc would be delicious, as would Chablis or a white Mâconnais. A dry rosé would work well. If you prefer reds, look for something fresh, with few tannins and little oak influence. It could be Beaujolais, or maybe a new-wave garnacha from Spain or a wine from the Cahors vanguard. ERIC ASIMOV