The best fried chicken I’ve had in my life was in 2009, in the city of Bogor, an hour’s drive south of Jakarta, Indonesia, at a dusty roadside restaurant called Ayam Goreng Warung Doyong. There, a gecko crept along the far concrete wall, making its signature chirp while we sat on rickety pink plastic stools awaiting the house specialty: chopped pieces of ayam kampung kremes fried in big cauldron-like woks. The crisp, juicy pieces of “village chicken” were topped with shards of fried flour granules, adding more crunch from the golden brown snowfall. Sweltering from the humidity, we wiped our brows and downed plates of fried chicken infused with the euphoric aromas of galangal, candlenut, turmeric, and shallot.
Fried chicken is a sacred food in America, but the countries of Asia have excelled in producing distinctive ways of cooking the bird that reflect culturally specific ingredients, sensibilities, flavors, and techniques. From the battered nibs of Taiwanese popcorn chicken fried with basil to Japan’s delicately seasoned karaage to the national obsession of South Korea — lacquered, spicy, sticky-sauced hunks, all of it is packed with crispy-crunchy flavor, and all of it is prime for washing down with a brisk lager.
Chicken is a common thread among most of the notable cuisines of Southeast and East Asia, and almost all of these versions can be found in the U.S., where they have reshaped the American notion of what fried chicken can look and taste like. Expanding beyond the classic Southern or Midwestern fried chicken styles, these Asian versions offer sweet or spicy sauces and a variety of different textures and coatings to add color, heat, and crunch to America’s pastiche of fried chicken excellence. Here is a look at the various styles of Asian fried chicken found in cities across the U.S. and a breakdown of the differences between each, in broad swaths, from the finger-sticking sauces of Chinese and Korean chicken wings to the sambal-smashed pieces I devoured in Indonesia.
According to Luther Bob Chen, founder of Luther Bob’s fried chicken, a takeout and delivery-only restaurant in Los Angeles, Chinese cuisines tend to use small, bite-size pieces of chicken that lack the bone because they cook better, though there are certainly exceptions. Think of Panda Express’s iconic orange chicken or General Tso’s recipe, found at myriad Chinese restaurants in the U.S.
The typical Americanized Chinese restaurant makes heavily battered chicken pieces, often covered in a sweet, tangy, and sometimes spicy sauce. Chen says the smaller pieces cook quicker and more evenly in woks, which tend to have lower oil temperatures than dedicated deep fryers. In China, the variety of fried chicken is as vast as the country’s regional cuisines, but two overall styles are most readily found stateside.
Parts: Thigh or breast typically chopped into small, bite-size pieces.
Marinade: Both the sauce and marinade work together to flavor the chicken. The marinade includes garlic, ginger, soy sauce, hoisin, sugar, sesame oil, chile, and vinegar for a sweet-spicy-tangy mixture that seasons the chicken prior to cooking.
Batter or breading: Wet from the marinade, the chicken pieces are coated in cornstarch, which helps retain a light level of crunch.
Fry: Often fried in a wok with ample oil in small batches.
Sauce: The sticky sauce frequently stars the same ingredients as the marinade but with garlic and ginger added to hot oil before the liquids are added to a wok or skillet. It’s reduced before being tossed with the fried chicken for that signature auburn-tinted look.
Accompaniments: Chow mein, fried rice.
Where to get it: General Tso’s is widely available at American Chinese restaurants. Sometimes orange chicken is a variant, served at Panda Express in virtually every major shopping mall. In LA, try the orange chicken from the newly renovated Broadway Cuisine (formerly Plum Tree Inn) in Chinatown.
In southwestern China, Chongqing-style chicken is marinated in Shaoxing wine, with intense flavors melded together with garlic, green onions, whole dried chiles, Sichuan peppercorns, ginger, and chile flakes all thrown into the frying oil. The resulting chopstick-ready bites are crisp umami bombs that are very “ma” numbing but not quite “la” spicy. (In Sichuan cuisine, mala is the combined spice from peppercorns and chiles that creates both the prickly numbing and fiery capsaicin sensations.)
Parts: For Chongqing fried chicken, chicken thighs chopped into small pieces.
Marinade: Soy sauce or salt, rice wine or Shaoxing wine, ginger, crushed white onion.
Batter or breading: N/A
Fry: Wok-fried twice for maximum crispiness, first at a lower temperature to cook through for three to four minutes, then three to four minutes for a second time.
Sauce: Seasoning comes less from a sauce and more from the other dry elements, like whole fried chiles and peppercorns, which add both spicy heat and numbing taste.
Accompaniments: Other Sichuan dishes or white rice.
Where to get it: Xiang La Hui in Alhambra, California, has a good version, along with SzechuanHouse in Flushing, Queens.
Taiwan’s notable contributions to fried chicken are the basil-flecked, chile powder-dusted chunks of popcorn chicken often sold alongside sweet milk tea boba drinks, and the larger whole chicken breast pieces popularized by Hot Star.
Parts: Whole breasts pounded flat or, for popcorn-style, chopped-up thigh pieces.
Marinade: Common marinades include rice wine, sugar, oyster sauce, and chile sauce, which means the chicken bursts with savory juices on first bite.
Batter or breading: Cornstarch and custard powder in the batter lend a sweetness and aid in the strikingly golden brown color of Taiwanese fried chicken and the ultra-crisp exterior.
Fry: To keep pieces extra crispy, popcorn chicken should be deep-fried in small batches. Add some basil leaves to the fryer after removing the chicken.
Accompaniments: Milk tea, with or without boba.
Where to get it: In LA’s San Gabriel Valley, the snack shop Bopomofo makes a fine popcorn chicken characterized by herbal notes from the basil and an almost-too-salty exterior that finds its balance from the spot’s excellent milk tea drinks. The restaurant’s fried chicken sandwich, using the same flavors and frying style, comes in a split pineapple bun with Thai basil aioli.
Fried chicken is a point of pride in South Korea, with countless franchises and independent shops offering quick delivery to every corner of the country. Even chefs of Michelin-starred restaurants are doing their part to add to the fried chicken game by tinkering with techniques and ingredients. Styles vary, but the most common way Koreans cook fried chicken is bone-in with a thick, crunchy batter coated with a sweet, spicy glaze. There’s also what Korean cookbook author and YouTuber Maangchi calls sijang-tongdak, or, literally, market chicken, which is double-fried with a thin, shatteringly crisp skin.
Parts: Everything from bone-in whole pieces to wings to entire birds split.
Batter: Usually a blanket of potato starch, imparting a heavy crunch that stands up well to the sauces. The “market” version’s thinner crust comes from a mix of potato starch, roasted soybean flour (which adds a nutty flavor and caramelized brown color), all-purpose flour, and baking soda.
Fry: Single- or double-fried, depending.
Sauce: Typical sauce ingredients are rice syrup, soy sauce, garlic, ginger, red chile flakes, and toasted sesame seeds.
Accompaniments: Koreans require only one side with fried chicken: pickled daikon, the white, tangy diced radish cubes swimming in a vinegary pickling liquid, which adds a sweet, crunchy alternating bite to the chicken. Sometimes places will serve shredded cabbage topped with a Thousand Island-style dressing, too.
Where to get it: Pelicana, Bonchon, Kyochon, Mom’s Touch, and bb.q Chicken are among LA’s fried chicken chains that offer the more densely battered style. Since LA’s the Prince became a Korean-style pub around 30 years ago, the lighter, crispy-fried chicken has been a stalwart of the classic subterranean 1960s cocktail bar (and it’s where Mad Men was filmed).
Fried chicken takes many forms in Japan, but the most prominent are karaage and katsu. These preparations lean toward simple and often sauceless (though katsu is served with its signature dark, tangy brown sauce), all the better to display the clean flavor of the chicken. Some Americanized fried chicken spots serve these styles with Japanese side dishes and pickles — Pikunico in Los Angeles and Tokyo Fried Chicken in Monterey Park, California, serve theirs with cabbage, grated pickled daikon, or dashi-braised collard greens. But even on their own, both styles are delicious.
Typically served as a side dish with ramen or izakaya fare, these tasty boneless fried pieces are more about highlighting the pure chicken flavor over complex batters or marinades. Traditionally tatsutaage was a more aggressively marinated version of Japanese fried chicken, taking similar shape and form but with more ingredients in the marinade. Today the terms are somewhat interchangeable, though karaage is the more known name. Karaage can be served over rice or on its own. A more fusion dish called nanban, incorporating a Portuguese technique, features a flour coating dipped into beaten eggs and then put directly in the fryer. It’s served with tartar sauce.
Parts: Thighs are diced into two-bite cubes.
Marinade: Karaage gets just a single coating of flour before being fried. Tatsutaage, which often shows up on menus as karaage, has a deeper marinade of soy sauce, mirin, ginger, garlic, sake, and sesame oil, though usually not for too long.
Batter or breading: The coatings are mainly potato starch and flour, applied once, for a basic browned exterior. The only liquid would be any residual from the marinade. Nanban gets a light coating of beaten egg.
Fry: Deep-fried in small batches to preserve the crisp texture.
Sauce: Occasionally shops will serve a spicy karaage with a sweet chile sauce covering the outside, but otherwise it’s typically served plain.
Accompaniments: Karaage is sometimes a main dish when topped over rice, but it’s usually more of an appetizer, served with a dollop of sweet, thick Kewpie mayo or with tartar sauce if prepared as nanban.
Where to get it: Ramen Nagi (in Palo Alto, Santa Clara, or LA’s Century City) does an excellent karaage, though honestly, it’s hard to find a bad version. Moto Ramen in Culver City, California, offers karaage, one of the best versions this writer has had outside of Japan.
Chicken katsu is a fried chicken cutlet with a flaky panko coating, prepared similarly to the pork cutlet tonkatsu that originated from Rengatei restaurant in Tokyo’s Ginza district in the late 1890s.
Parts: Breast or thigh meat, pounded into a thin, even cutlet.
Batter or breading: Dipped in an egg wash and then coated with a fibrous panko crust that helps keep the meat juicy.
Fry: Instead of a deep-fry, katsu is typically pan-fried in a skillet with less than an inch of oil and flipped halfway through cooking for an even, brown color.
Accompaniments: It’s served either topped with kare (curry) or with a side of sweet-savory dark apple and tomato sauce (commonly called tonkatsu sauce) and a smidge of hot mustard. Shaved cabbage, Japanese pickles, and steamed rice are common pairings as well.
In Indonesia (and Malaysia), ayam goreng is prepared as small juicy pieces that are fried to a dark brown crisp without any batter. The country’s own chicken breed, called ayam kampung, literally means village chicken, and is a smaller, free-range bird that has an excellent flavor for frying. Developed via hundreds of years of interbreeding with red jungle fowl, European, and Indigenous chicken species, ayam kampung are often more expensive than commercial breeds but worth every penny.
Parts: Either halves or quarters, or smaller, separate bone-in pieces.
Marinade: Flavored with turmeric, galangal, garlic, lemongrass, and candlenuts, giving it a uniquely tropical and Southeast Asian flavor profile versus some of the other northern Asian cuisines. Notice no soy sauce in particular.
Batter or breading: Typically no batter, though ayam goreng kremes earns its crunchy texture from spiced flour dust thrown into the hot oil, which is then taken out and sprinkled over the chicken.
Fry: Wok-fried or deep-fried with coconut oil or palm oil.
Accompaniments: Steamed rice and some combination of sambal, or Indonesian chile paste, plus cucumbers and other sliced vegetables. Ayam penyet, which is fried chicken pieces beaten with a mortar as a tenderizing mechanism, gets sambal slathered onto the chicken.
Where to get it: Simpang Asia in Los Angeles, which has locations in the Palms and Venice neighborhoods, offers both ayam goreng kuning (the simpler turmeric version) as well as the smashed-chicken ayam penyet.
Fried chicken is a popular street food in Thailand, often made with smaller, two-pound birds, which can have a more developed, concentrated flavor than the four- to five-pound chickens in the U.S. On American menus, Thai fried chicken often shows up as wings. Night + Market does an almost katsu-like version. The spicy, salty wings feature a sweet glaze imbued with fish sauce and either coconut or palm sugar. They’re hard to put down.
Parts: Chicken wings, primarily, but also chicken thighs if done Chiang Mai-style.
Marinade: A simple mix that can include garlic, cumin, coriander seed, and fish sauce.
Batter or breading: Thai fried chicken is more straightforward and less about the crust, which might only be a single dredging of rice flour.
Fry: In northeast Thailand, whole cloves of garlic are often thrown into the marinade and later fried alongside the chicken pieces.
Sauce: Kris Yenbamroong’s peek gai hey-ha party wings uses diced bell peppers, onion, jalapenos, white vinegar, fish sauce, paprika, and coconut or palm sugar thickened and reduced before getting tossed with the chicken.
Where to get it: The peek gai hey-ha party wings at Night + Market are a great example of the saucy glazed version, while a stellar Southern rendition can be ordered at Luv2Eat Thai Bistro in Hollywood, where chefs Fern Kewathatip and Noree Pla serve it with crispy shallots, sticky rice, and a sweet chile sauce.
As the story behind Filipino chicken chain Max’s Restaurant goes, in 1945, Stanford-educated teacher Maximo Gimenez invited American soldiers stationed nearby in Quezon City for dinner. Eventually he opened a cafe serving steak, chicken, and drinks, but his niece Ruby actually created the moist, crunchy fried chicken that helped launch an empire that now spans more than 200 locations globally. The other well-known, cult-favorite chain Jollibee opened in the late 1970s and served fried chicken that resembles that of popular American restaurants like Kentucky Fried Chicken or Popeyes, with its double-dredged batter of flour and spices. However, Filipino cooks put their spin on the dish, serving it with a brown gravy meant not for mashed potatoes but for dipping — or fully submerging — the chicken.
Parts: The classic bird, divided into wings, breasts, drumsticks, and thighs.
Marinade: Simply seasoned with salt and pepper.
Batter or breading: The meat is double-dredged in a batter of flour and cornstarch, plus some lighter spices like garlic powder.
Sauce: A very simple brown gravy with a touch of soy sauce.
Accompaniments: Gravy again, but it also pairs well with a sweet ketchup dip or even a full plate of hot dog-laden spaghetti — tomato-y, topped with American cheese, and slightly sweetened by sugar or banana ketchup. At Max’s Restaurant, the fried chicken is served with a side of Worcestershire sauce and french fries.
Where to get it: Max’s Restaurant in Glendale, California, and Las Vegas, or Jollibee, with 70 locations nationwide.
Fact checked by Kelsey Lannin
Copy edited by Leilah Bernstein