SOUTH KOREAN POP culture is not limited to music, soap operas and fashion – it is also making waves in cuisine. While most think of Korean barbecues, its fried chicken is becoming much more popular.
Hong Kong-based Ben Kwon, an American-born Korean, knows fried chicken from both worlds: he grew up eating his mother’s home-made version and that of American chains and bars in Korea. He decided that Korean-style fried chicken was the winner.
“Coming from the US, I’m used to KFC or Popeye’s, but there’s a distinct taste to Korean fried chicken. It’s lighter and not heavily battered. It has more character,” says Kwon.
“I like it also because it’s one of the things that I would grab with friends. It’s a very social thing. The place is usually more like a bar setting, because you go there for chicken and beer. The more traditional places are closer to a bar than to a proper restaurant, which means that they sell a lot of bar food, too. I guess the dingier the better,” he says.
Koreans love their fried chicken so much that they have a catchy term for it – chi-mek, a combination of “chicken” and “mekju” (beer). Chi-mek refers to one of their favourite things to do when hanging out with friends.
Small Korean shops often come up with their own recipes to make themselves stand out. And added bonus is the wide range of beers, or even better, draught beers, along with soju and rice wines.
Kwon’s favourite place used to be Chill Out Sports Bar in Central. After it closed, it didn’t take long for Kwon to find new spots, most of which are in Tsim Sha Tsui.
His recent favourite is Chicken HOF & SOJU on Kimberley Road. Better known among Koreans as “Lee Family”, it is named after bar owner Kwon Dong-hyun’s father-in-law, who taught him how to make the snack.
Kwon’s (no relation to Ben Kwon) original idea was to open a bar. But seeing a gap in the market in Hong Kong, he Kwon says the difference among various restaurants’ fried chicken recipes lies in the marinade and sauce. His secret recipe uses about 20 ingredients in the marinade, along with soda and beer, as the fizz can make the chicken more tender.
In addition to the typical yangnyeom chicken, covered with a bright red sweet-and-sour sticky glaze consisting of Korean chilli sauce and tomato sauce, Chicken HOF offers three more options: original fried chicken, soy sauce chicken and spring onion chicken.
The plain fried chicken is best for those who love it crunchy, while soy sauce chicken is mixed with soy sauce and lots of chopped garlic, and has a thinner batter so it doesn’t soak up too much of the sauce.
The most popular, also very much on trend in Korea, is the spring onion chicken.
It comes with a generous helping of shredded spring onion, and a refreshing dressing made of soy sauce, sugar, vinegar and wasabi. The onion adds texture, freshness and a spicy kick.
The best way to eat the dish, as demonstrated by the owner himself, is to be hands-on and wrap the spring onion around the meat before taking a bite. The result – a satisfying mouthful – shows why this place is so popular as a casual, no-frills place where people can meet up with friends after work, or dine into the early hours (it’s open until 5am).
Another shop with a similar ambience and late hours is Apgujeong Korean Tent Bar on Knutsford Terrace in Tsim Sha Tsui.
The dimly lit bar has several tatami-style booths and a bigger menu than Chicken HOF, offering more snacks and main dishes. Manager Grazie Cheung says yangnyeom chicken is one of the most popular dishes; it sometimes sells out, much to the dismay of customers who come to the bar just for that.
But diners see something worth coming back for. The sauce contains cranberry jam, which makes it thicker and sweeter, and customers can choose from different degrees of spiciness. The coating is very crisp, although the meat is not as moist and juicy as Chicken HOF.
Guests can also order the sauce on the side, although Cheung says the fried chicken doesn’t taste the same as when it’s immediately tossed and coated in the boiling sauce.
ChumChumMi, which was originally in the Miramar Mall, has moved to FHP Shopping Centre on Mody Road due to rent rises. But manager Oh Hyeong-jin is happy to say that the new shop is even better for friends to get their chi-mek fix, as it now has an alfresco area.
Its fried chicken, cut into smaller pieces, comes in plain, sweet-and-sour or spicy. The sweet-and-sour sauce is mild, reminiscent of Thai sweet chilli sauce. And, as with the rest, the fried chicken comes with the traditional accompaniment of pickled white radish, which cuts through the greasiness and clears the palate.
On the other side of the harbour, Jang, in Central, is a good choice. Unlike the casual ambience at Chicken HOF and Apgujeong, Jang is a chic and spacious lounge-restaurant.
Instead of using the whole chopped chicken in the dish like the others, it uses only drumsticks and chicken wings in its two fried chicken dishes. The reason, says executive chef Janet Park Ji-sun, is that she prefers drumsticks as they are meatier and because Hong Kong people love chicken wings.
Park, who learned to cook from her mother before studying food and nutrition at college, says her recipe is simple and homey. She uses a chicken powder, garlic and pepper marinade before dipping the pieces in a light batter and deep-frying them twice for a crunchier finish. The Korean chilli and ketchup sauce is served on the side, as Park wants to keep the chicken crisp.
She says the restaurant’s concept focuses on contemporary Korean food, so she chose to combine casual snacks and more refined items with better presentation and smaller portions.
“People are more interested in the fried items on the Korean menu now [rather than barbecue],” Park says.
“When you see Korean dramas, they always order drinks with deep-fried food.
It’s a common snack mums cook for their kids after school. And when we watch football and games, we always prepare deep fried chicken and beer – it’s a really good match.
“That’s our lifestyle – it’s not fancy food. It’s our culture and I’m happy to show people more of it.”
Ben Kwon, meanwhile, thinks fried chicken will continue to be popular, citing signs of it gaining traction, from Korean- American chef David Chang of Momofuku in New York showing how to make his fried chicken on a talk show, down to the opening of Korean chains Kyochon and Bonchon in America.
“[The dish] started in Korea and it has done well for the past decade or so. It’s definitely going global,” Kwon says.
“Fried chicken is easy. It transcends different cultures. Every culture out there has their kind of deep fried chicken – it just adds to the variety. So it’s easier to accept, whereas traditional Korean food like kimchi might be harder to get used to. But fried chicken can work.”
Apgujeong Tent Bar
1/F, 9 Koon Fook Centre, Knutsford Terrace, TST. Tel: 3579 2992
Chicken HOF & SOJU
84 Kam Kok Mansion, Kimberley Road, TST. Tel: 2375 8080
17-20 & 31-34, FHP Shopping Centre, 37-41Mody Road, TST. Tel: 2363 1100
18/F The L Place, 139 Queen's Road Central, Central. Tel: 2412 0002
Mix & Rice
South Sea Apartments, 81Chantham Road, TST. Tel: 2730 2201