Why you should care
This crispy chicken is fried more than once.
Hungry and yearning for a taste of home, I go in search of a familiar brand in Taiwan. Snuggled between traditional medicine shops and oolong tea houses is the glaring red and white moniker of America’s Kentucky Fried Chicken. But don’t expect the original finger-lickin’ flavor. Instead, you’ll get deep-fried goodness that you’ll wish was in the heartlands of America too.
Near the Tamsui River, a three-story KFC restaurant in Taipei is chock-full of people on a weekend night: couples having romantic dinners, college students studying for final exams and families with fidgety kids grabbing late-night grub. According to an online survey from travel company Mook, KFC is one of the five most popular “bucket list” chicken restaurants in Taiwan. This is the ultimate, deep-fried renaissance of East meets West, says Charlene Yang, a popular food blogger based in Taipei.
The result is moist, melt-in-your-mouth meat on the inside and a delicate golden shell on the outside.
There’s a bilingual Chinese and English menu, but don’t expect to find the typical suspiciously green coleslaw and biscuits. Instead you can choose from congee rice porridge topped with chicken strips, stringy pork floss and sweet corn, chicken breasts layered with oozing melted cheese and spicy ma la– flavored fried chicken. Unlike in the U.S., every bite of this chicken is marinated in sugar and soy sauce, and then dredged in a secret crispy coating. I go for a smoked bacon and chicken sandwich, splattered with creamy peanut butter. The result is moist, melt-in-your-mouth meat on the inside and a delicate golden shell on the outside. The salted peanut butter adds texture.
Many foreign fast-food chains in Asia tweak their offerings in order to cater to the local palate. In Taiwan there’s even a local interpretation of the classic Colonel Sanders — his jolly, bearded smile is plastered everywhere. But alas, when I inquired about the local recipe for success, KFC headquarters in Taiwan declined to comment. All the execs were “busy” with the grand opening of another new restaurant, says spokesperson Peggy Han. She didn’t offer any exact numbers on how many KFCs are in Taiwan, but in Taipei, you’ll spot them on most busy street corners.
After you’ve stuffed yourself with Taiwan’s answer to the secret recipe, it’s time for dessert. The crème de la crème? Caramelized egg tarts with buttery, flaky layers of pastry and a silky yellow custard — way better than the snoozefest of apple pie and chocolate cake on offer in the U.S. People wait in lines that snake out the door and around the corner for flavors that include chocolate waffle, Thousand Island and mochi brown sugar.
Many imagine fried chicken as a beacon for soul food, rooted in Southern American traditions. But from South Korea’s spicy yangnyeom to Senegal’s chicken yassa, it’s taken on new forms around the world. In Taiwan, the chicken is deep-fried not just once, but twice, allowing for a crumbly, crunchy shell that’s thin and delicate, like tempura. Then it’s tossed with basil leaves and dusted with five-spice powder, rich with star anise, cloves, Chinese cinnamon, Sichuan pepper and fennel seeds.
The combo of crunchy and salty hits your tongue at once, says Ash Boden, a food writer in Taipei: “That skin just gets blistered in the hot oil and crunches up amazingly. It always tastes as if it’s just come out of the fryer.”
Trust me, after that you’ll never pine again for those 11 herbs and spices and no-frills mashed potatoes.