“The World’s Fried Chicken Capital”
The little karaage, one of the most popular snacks in Japan, is a delicate and intricate version of fried chicken. It is a staple across the country. This delightfully crunchy treat is such a favorite that every year thousands of people vote in a country-wide competition to determine which karaage shop serves the best ones. While shops from massive metropolises like Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka should be dominating any large-scale contest, it’s shops from one small town, Nakatsu City. This small town located in the Oita prefecture on the southern island of Kyushu typically garner the most awards.
The Karaage Grand Prix is the annual competition in Japan whose winner gets to boast that they have the crispiest, juiciest, most flavorful fried chicken. Nearly 1,000 shops enter to compete. Up until 2022, this contest was based entirely on popularity, with common denizens getting to vote on their favorite places. But in 2023, the rules are changing. The judges will taste test and determine the best karaage.
karaage (pronounced like “karate”, except you substitute a hard “g” for the “t”) is a type of fried chicken. Its famous in Japan for both its simplicity of execution and complexity of flavors. Karaage uses potato starch as a coating lightly battering the bird. The marinate for nugget-sized pieces of chicken uses mixtures of soy sauce, ginger, salt, garlic, fruits. But its other highly secretive ingredients that gives off a taste explosion that dribbles down your chin with every bite.
People line up around the block for their favorites. Even the late Anthony Bourdain (An American Chef) obsessed over them. “I’m addicted to these deep-fried chicken cutlets… It’s a guilty pleasure. I know exactly where to find a Lawson in Narita International Airport. And I never get on the plane without loading up on these bad boys.” There’s even a Karaage movie produced by the Japan Karaage Association dubbing the savory snack as the “ultimate national food”.
But fundamentally, karaage is the final result of a multi-generational history. Its the culmination that spans continents, the age of exploration, cross-cultural pollination, famine and world wars. It’s a fried chicken unlike any other and it’s considered the soul food of Nakatsu.
origins of Karaage
The origins of karaage can be traced to the 16th Century. The Portuguese missionaries arriving on shores of Kyushu Island brought their fried cooking methods with them. Slowly, Japanese denizens began to adopt some of these Western ways into what today would be considered tempura. At the time, however, the Japanese diet was mainly pescatarian, which could be attributed to their Buddhist beliefs.
Eating chicken didn’t come into the picture until tragedy struck the island nation. During the Kyōhō era (1716-1736), a widespread famine wiped out the rice crop from Kyushu and killed thousands of people. In order to restore finances, farmers were encouraged to do more poultry farming to sell more eggs. Eventually people began to eat chicken once their egg-laying birds had passed their prime.
The next major Japanese dietary jump began in 1868. The new Emperor of Japan embarked on a drastic reformation of society. He adopted a cavalcade of Western ideas when it came to industrialization, military technology and even people’s diets. Emperor Meiji opened the country’s borders and allowed more culinary influences from China and the West to permeate the culture. This meant eating more meat.
But it wasn’t until after WWII that fried chicken, and in particular karaage, became the touchstone that it is today. After the war, Japan was decimated, food shortages were rampant. And with a lack of rice, the Japanese diet dramatically changed. The United States was responsible for importing food and brought in wheat which led to more noodle-based dishes (like ramen). As well as broiler chickens which were easier and faster to raise than other meat varieties.
The island of Kyushu had already become known as a poultry center. New methods of cooking meat quickly took off and helped nourish a starving country. Today more than half of all broiler chickens come from Kyushu.
Karaage itself can trace its roots to a Chinese restaurant named Rairaken in Nakatsu City’s next-door neighbour, Usa City. It was here in the late 1950s that the establishment began serving deep-fried karaage as part of a set menu. From there, it jumped across the street to a small izakaya (tavern) named Shosuke.
The owner of Shosuke was originally buying chickens from local farmers and selling them to butchers. While his wife served karaage and sake to eager customers. But he had a problem: his karaage customers were primarily rice farmers. They could only pay for his food and drinks when the rice harvest came in. So he was constantly scrambling for money and barely surviving as a business.
At the same time, bigger farms started industrializing broiler chickens and his chicken-peddling business was becoming less profitable. “Shosuke quit the izakaya and started the first take-out restaurant serving only karaage. He also switched his target to housewives who paid cash up front, instead of husbands who paid late
Karaage as its Today
Today, chefs in Nakatsu have taken their karaage to the next level. A healthy competition between the nearly 50 shops has inspired chefs to tinker with everything. From cooking times and batters to a variety of soy- and salt-based marinades. Nearly every shop in Nakatsu has a secret ingredient that they’re not willing to share and which separates their karaage from the rest.
Take Torishin, a shop run by Nakatsu’s resident karaage master Shinichi Sumi, a five-time Grand Gold Award winner at the Karaage Grand Prix. Sumi spent 15 years perfecting his karaage recipe. Today, he cooks every part of the chicken at separate temperatures. His karaage is consistently rates as the best in Nakatsu.
Then there’s Takae Tateishi, one of the rare female karaage shop owners whose spot, Kokko-ya, is arguably the most unique in the city with her salt-rice-malt marinade and desire to do everything from scratch.
And then there’s Kouji Moriyama, whose shop Moriyama was the first ever champion of the Karaage Grand Prix and is the nephew of Nakatsu karaage’s founding father, Shoji Moriyama. He makes a salt-based crispy karaage that erupts with juices from every bite and has a mix of undisclosed fruits that infuses his chicken with exceptional flavours.
But karaage isn’t just something to eat in Nakatsu, it’s an entire identity. Every autumn, there’s Karafes, a karaage festival which attracts upwards of 50,000 people from around Japan and the world, and nearly every shop participates to drum up popularity for the city. The town also holds a 2019 Guinness World Record for the largest serving of fried chicken topping out at 1,667.301kg (3,675lb, 12oz).
Of those 40-plus shops in Nakatsu, everyone in the city has their personal favorite. It reminds them of their childhood. It’s a food that rose out of poverty, fed a starving island and became a savoury symbol that can now be found at weddings, birthdays and major celebrations including Christmas when millions of Japanese eat fried chicken. And the Karaage Grand Prix is their way to prove that this lineage makes their city the beating heart of fried chicken in Japan.
The Karaage Grand Prix started in Tokyo in 2010 as a national competition to rank karaage and promote the tasty treat around the country. Up until 2022, voting was entirely online and the most popular karaage shops typically won all the awards. According to Kouichiro Yagi of the Japan Karaage Association, “in 2023 Judges will taste test to further improve the value of the awards.”
When you talk to the shop owners in Nakatsu, they’re borderline dismissive of the past competitions. But you could tell they all felt that this year was different. Shinichi Sumi of Torishin said, “The next one is real. I want the challenge and I’m going to try to win.”
The judges will base their decisions on the frying colour, the batter, the harmony between the meat and the batter, the juiciness, the flavour, the cost effectiveness (how much you get for the price), and the temperature level (too much heat can cause burns).
The CEO of the Nakatsu Karaage Association, Masahiko Inoue, looks at the 2023 Grand Prix along with Nakatsu’s place in the karaage world in an existential way. “The next competition is important because people will know which shop is really number one. But ultimately, I want everyone to know that Nakatsu karaage is special.
Karaage represents perseverance, it shows ingenuity, and it’s a reminder of how Japan overcame adversity. And for the residents of Nakatsu, it’s the soul food that simply feels like home.
Coutesy: The article written by Paul Feinstein is originally published by BBC. Slight changes are made without altering the information.