Attempting to identify Britain’s national dish is a mug’s game. It is a question too wrapped up in history, culture and emotion, rather than straight sales. There is no objective metric. But, by any criteria, fried chicken must surely be a frontrunner?
“The chicken shop is London,” declared Munchies earlier this year and, with over 8000 in the capital – roughly one for every thousand Londoners – who could argue? Other cities may lack an identifiable scene star like Elijah Quashie, aka. the Chicken Connoisseur, or a dedicated chicken shop app, but there is a similar hunger for fried chook across the UK.
And not just among teenagers. Bargain bucket joints may be flourishing, but so too are gourmet “dude food” diners pushing jazzed-up, buttermilk-marinated poultry to picky urban 20-somethings. Chicken shops are generally talked aboutin narrow terms of poverty and obesity, while their hip cousins enjoy rapturous reviews, but, in their appeal and viability, they have a lot in common.
But what is the best way to eat it?
Fried chicken or fried chicken?
It is most closely associated with the US (where West African slaves or, possibly their Scottish oppressors, introduced it), but there are numerous global variations on fried chicken, particularly in Asia: Malaysian turmeric fried chicken served with nasi lemak; Korean fried chicken; Japan’s potato starch-powered karaage. In Spain, at A Fuego Negro, the kitchen coats its birds in what tastes like crushed, ready salted crisps, to create the finest chicken How To Eat has ever tasted.
For the sake of brevity, however, we will concentrate here on what we understand as southern fried, post-KFC chicken, and menu items common in our new wave, US-inspired diners.
Pieces and prep
HTE does not cook but, in getting serious about fried chicken, there are certain issues it must address. For instance, there is a clear hierarchy of cuts. Thighs and drumsticks offer by far the best flavour and, unlike wings (more gristle and bone than meat; too much work, too little reward), justify the hassle of having to gnaw that brown meat from the bone. Chicken breast, be it whole or in dipping strips, is tolerable but dull: bland, woolly, dry. Beloved of unadventurous diners.
HTE must also dip into marinades, seasonings and sauces, to make two points. Firstly, unless you have entered Satan’s Killer Wings 2017, this is not a competition. Cayenne heat is one of many seasonings that, if combined intelligently, should produce a moreish savoury complexity in your chicken – not a huge wallop of lip-numbing heat.
Secondly, it may look attractive – often the primary concern in modern pro kitchens – but fried chicken should not arrive slathered in sauce. It turns the coating flabby, but it also removes choice for the diner. If they want to add a crazy hot sauce, they can, as they see fit. But pre-saucing leaves the public at the kitchen’s mercy. Never a good place to be.
Creating an epic fried chicken sandwich is a bit like creating a communist utopia. Yes, it is theoretically possible (think: soft, durable bun; high-quality chicken in a coating with an audible crunch; Sriracha mayonnaise; pickles), but it has gone wrong so many times it is difficult to keep faith with it as a practical project.
The world is awash with OTT burgers and sandwiches, based around a flavourless, rubbery slab of rapidly-cooling breast meat, which, to try and disguise that flavour void, come topped with all sorts of things (mulchy tomatoes; drab lettuce; bacon; hash browns; cheese; chorizo; hot salsa etc), that coagulate into a great wodge of texturally indistinguishable stodge of muddled flavours. All housed in a stale and/ or shrunken bun, which falls apart after two mouthfuls.
Note: HTE refuses to lower itself by discussing fried chicken doughnut burgers. Grow up, world.
Fried chicken meals
By which HTE means fried chicken and chips. Because what else would you eat it with? Salad? If so, why? Perhaps it is feasible you could produce an impressive meal of fried chicken and salad but – the road to good intentions being paved with hellish moments – you are going to eat many terrible meals on that journey, while fried chicken’s perfect partner already exists. To be clear, when HTE says chips we of course mean fries: rustling, taut, tanned, glistening sticks of starch – each fistful a hot ‘n’ salty, blandly carb-y lull between mouthfuls of assertively savoury chicken.
Accompaniments and sides
Chicken and chips is a complete meal. But capitalism relies on selling you things you do not need. Restaurants cannot leave it there. You should. Sweet potato fries (enduringly vile) or galumphing potato wedges are, like triple-cooked chips, way too heavy in this context.
Similarly, with the exception of corn-on-the-cob (a bizarrely healthy interloper of zero culinary merit), everything else regularly offered with fried chicken appears to promise hedonistic indulgence, but, actually, quickly tips this richly calorific meal over from being a satisfying blow-out, into an episode of chronic indigestion and fierce self-recrimination. Sweet potato mash? Waffles? Mac ‘n’ cheese? BBQ beans? Onion rings? All of these are too much of a bad thing.
There are two exceptions: kimchi and coleslaw, as long as the latter tends to the zippy “Asian slaw” end of the spectrum, not the mayo-logged. Both offer a little clean, acidic punctuation, a brief spritz of freshness, in this otherwise deliriously greasy meal.
With the honourable exception of chicken gravy, you are looking for a similar brief, bracing contrast from the sauces – some pep, heat or sharpness. As outlined, these must be served on the side and, crucially, not in tiny, fiddly pots, but in containers with a large aperture so you can comfortably dip your chicken pieces.
Good sauces Ketchup; curry; acidulated or hot mayos (never plain unless on a sandwich); loosened gochujang; very garlicky aioli; hot sauces (at the sensible, not A&E, end of the Scoville scale); Hollandaise for artery-hardening luxury; Thai-style, lime-spiked dipping sauces.
Bad sauces Jammy BBQ or sweet chilli sauces (commercial versions are, invariably, appalling); anything involving honey, this is not dessert; blue cheese (a bully); soy-based sauces that add a fuggy, muggy layer of meatiness.
There are undoubtedly people (amassing BTL, as you read this), who regularly make fried chicken at home. Good luck to them. They must have a lot of time on their hands.
For the rest of us, fried chicken is a takeaway or restaurant job. One that must not be served on plates, but in buckets, cartons, greaseproof-paper lined baskets or polystyrene trays. Both because it feels intuitively right and because everything gets cold too quickly otherwise. Fried chicken needs to be contained in some way to retain its heat. Use your fingers of course, not cutlery (how could you?), and stock-up on a sizeable wad of napkins. You will need them.
After midday and before 4.30am. Let’s keep this civilised.
Something fizzy that will periodically scrub your mouth clean, whose brash, bustling flavours (craft keg IPA, full-fat cola etc.), are sufficiently in-your-face to hold their own amid all that heat, salt and fat. Delicate still drinks – water, white wine – are not only ineffective, they will make the whole meal die in your mouth.
So, fried chicken, how do you eat yours?
Read more at theguardian.com