For South Koreans, a platter of fried chicken, whether it is seasoned in soy, pan-fried in hot and sweet sauce or deep-fried in oil, has become an iconic dish that is typically downed with draft beer or soju any day of the week.
But for 54-year-old housewife Kim Young-mi, deep-fried chicken was once a special treat her late father used to bring home on payday or for special occasions in her childhood.
“It was when Korea was poor and meat was scarce,” she said. “I gave most of the chicken to my younger brother and sister, but it was still one of the best moments in my childhood.”
Today, it is not easy to find the old-fashioned deep-fried chicken she used to have, she noted, with chicken joints continuously experimenting with diverse recipes to cater to shifting consumer tastes.
Back in the 1950s and ’60s, the most common way of cooking a whole chicken in Korea was to boil it with rice and ginseng, a dish called samgyetang.
The birth of the deep fried chicken dates back to the late 1960s when Myeongdong Yeongyang Center in Seoul began to sell the whole chicken grilled in an electric oven.
The nongreasy, crunchy yet tender fried chicken started to become a common staple in the 1970s in line with the nation’s economic growth, emergence of cooking oil and vast improvement in chicken farming.
The first modern-day fried-chicken joint Lims Chicken, owned and run by Shinsegae Department Store, was established in 1977. The popularity of the fried chicken in Korea soared further upon arrival of American chain Kentucky Fried Chicken in 1984.
In 1982, the chicken chains started to put their own spins on the fried chicken, with Pelicana Chicken in 1982 starting to coat the chicken in hot and sweet sauce, now famously called “yangnyeom (seasoned) chicken.” It was the first such recipe in the world.
The competition in the chicken industry grew in the 1990s as the nation’s fast food chain Lotteria joined the bandwagon. BBQ Chicken, the nation’s best-selling chicken brand, has reaped a success since its opening during the Asian financial crisis in 1997 by promoting an idea of fried chicken delivered to the door.
What sets Korean-style fried chicken apart from America’s variety with thick, well-seasoned crust, is that Korean fried chicken is fried at least twice, which makes it extra crispy. In the 2000s, Korean chains started to add different flavors to the chicken using diverse seasoning ranging from barbecue and hot-pepper sauce with toppings including spring onions, cheese and garlic.
“American-style fried chicken has less variety of flavors, but it usually has more meat instead of bones,” said Christopher Cashel-Cordo, a 27-year-old English teacher from the U.S., indicating that Korean fried chicken is much smaller than its American counterpart. “I definitely like a combo of chicken and beer. There are more and better flavors here.”
Fried chicken is thought to originate from Soul Food, a term used for an ethnic cuisine traditionally prepared and eaten by the African-American community, during the slavery period. African slaves were given only off-cuts of meat from their masters to be fried and eaten to maximize the calorie intake, which they seasoned and added spices to enrich the flavor to invent the American-style fried chicken.
By Ock Hyun-ju (firstname.lastname@example.org)