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 about in 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.
You may add kimchi to your fried chicken rather than ketchup, but, however you dress it up, fried chicken is thriving because people of all stripes love filthy food. As a nation, we have fallen hard for succulent meat in a crisp, spicy coating. Moreover, whether that chicken is factory-farmed in South America or reared free-range in Suffolk, it has taken off as a product – grown wings, so to speak – because it is a comparatively cheap protein, which you can easily train people to cook. Necessity is the mother of invention, and in an age of austerity when there is a dire shortage of skilled chefs, fried chicken is a simple, popular, cost-effective menu item.
But what is the best way to eat it?
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.
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.