Salty Crispy Poppers
Once upon a time in a land far far away, there lived a young girl.
Everyday after school, she took the same road home, wearing her same brown shoes, humming the same little song. One afternoon just like the day before, she passed by the usual food stall on the way, but felt unusually hungry. She realized that she forgot to eat lunch because she was probably too busy chasing boys during lunch break. Remembering what her mother had always warned her about the forbidden street snack, she reached for the changes in her pocket and hesitated. An old, wrinkly lady behind a huge wok of boiling grease smiled at her and said, “Hi there, little one. Would you like to have some Salty-crispy chicken? Oh they are awfully delicious.”
The little girl pondered about all those stories her mother had told her. Stories about little children who disobeyed their parents’ warning and ate the forbidden street snacks. Stories about the horrible things that happened to them afterwards… perhaps things to do with toilets… “No, I mustn’t.” The girl said. “Fine… it’s just a little suggestion…” The old lady turned away and tossed little pieces of fried chicken in a cloud of shimmering magic-powder. The little girl breathed in the pungent aroma of fried chicken and mysterious spices, and forgot her mother’s warning in her heart. Just a little bit. Just a try… she thought to herself. “OK. I think I’ll have some.” “Ooh I promise you’ll love it… heeehee” The old lady grinned. The little girl held the piping-hot chicken poppers given to her in a brown paper bag, and put one in her mouth. Then something happened….
Hoooly shit! It was the best thing she’s EVER eaten!! What is this and where has it been all her life? Wait, actually it had always been there, in the same street corner on the same way home, but apparently her evil nonstep-mother had kept her away from it all this time in the name of… she didn’t know what. But whatever it was, she was certain that it had something to do with the evil witch – Hyper-Germaphobia. The little girl went home happily in bouncy steps. It was the day she had her first true-love’s bite and it had broken the spell of fear-in-street-snacks. Even though there’s no Prince Charming in this story, whenever she felt her spirit needed rescue, there’s always the fabulous awesome, incredible, salty crispy chicken poppers.
Guys… indulge me. Anyways, I’m glad to say that the little girl had nothing horrible happened to her after she went home… nothing to do with a toilet at least. And frankly put, even if there was? It was worth it. I’ve been wanting to do this recipe since the beginning of this blog because it’s one of the most representational, vastly welcomed, maybe-just-a-bit-behind-bubble-tea Taiwanese street snacks. The salty crispy chicken. NO, really. It literally translates into “salt”, “crispy”, “chicken”. Every night market will have at least one stall selling this beloved fried chicken snacks and there are many, to be honest, mediocre ones. But if you ever find the right stall. If you ever manage to get your hands on the GOOD ones. Oh it’s unforgettable. It is to say the least, a real true love’s bite. But if Taiwan sounds a bit far far away, here’s how to make it at home…
Servings: 3 ~ 4
- 1 1/2 chicken breast (that’s 1.5 “set” of breast)
- 1 tbsp of soy sauce
- 1/2 tsp of salt
- 1/8 tsp of five spice
- 1/4 tsp of freshly ground black pepper
- 1/4 tsp of white pepper
- 2 smashed garlic
- 1 tbsp of fine sea salt
- 1 1/2 tbsp of white pepper
- 1 tbsp of ground black pepper
- 1/2 tsp of five spice powder
- 1/4 tsp of Sichuan peppercorn powder
- 1/8 tsp of MSG
- 1 1/2 cup of tapioca starch
- 1 1/2 tbsp of black pepper
- 1 1/2 tbsp of white pepper
- 1 tsp of salt
- 2 tsp of garlic powder
- *important details about the breading below
- 3 cloves of minced garlic
- Thai basil and a few favorite herbs
I usually make this with de-boned dark meat. But there must have been a powerful spell that scrambled my mind because I woke up from it and found chicken breasts in my fridge… That’s completely mental. I don’t even remember the last time I bought chicken breast ANYWHERE. What’s gotten into me? But, well it’s there. I can’t just stare them into vanishment so…
By all means use dark meat if preferred. If using breasts, make 1/3″/1cm deep, diagonal scores all over the surface of the meat and cut them into small pieces (1.5″/4cm squares), then marinade in the rest of the ingredient for approx 1 ~ 2 hours. The breasts could, better yet, be brined for a juicier texture. But truth be told, I never find myself in a situation where I “plan” to make these poppers. They are always a last minute craving that must be satisfied in a couple hours max. That’s why I always use dark meat instead of white.
When the meats are marinading, mix together all the ingredients in “spice mixture”. Now, the MSG is optional. I know how many people out there are wary of this badly-represented crystal. Don’t like the sound of “MSG”? How about “UMAMI”? That’s right. UMAMI. It’s a chemical source found in SEAWEED by the JAPANESE, hence called the UMAMI! So next time when people are talking about “umami this” and “umami that”, or “umami in a tube”… just know that it is actually referring to – M. S. G! If you value authenticity above all else. MSG is a must in the spice mixture. Just like it is in almost ALL Asian savory street foods.
Combine all the ingredients in the “breading” in a bowl. The breading calls for tapioca flour and I’m afraid to say that this one isn’t negotiable. It HAS TO be tapioca starch. Not flour. Not cornmeals. No. It isn’t the same. Tapioca starch tends to form little granules of itself and these little bits of starch will become little bits of crunchiness in the finished product. It is visually, and texturally irreplaceable for an authentic salty-crispy-chicken. Tapioca starch is made from yams or cassava, and can be found in major supermarkets or ONLINE. Taiwanese brands are preferred.
Mix 2/3 of a beaten egg into the chicken breasts and combine evenly, then toss them in the breading A FEW PIECES at a time. Make sure each piece has an even coating of the breading. Place the breaded chicken breasts on a baking rack and LET IT REST FOR 30 MIN. This step is important in order for the starch to hydrate from the moisture. If you skip this step and goes right to the frying, you will get a “powdery” texture and taste.
Preheat the oven on 300ºF/150ºC. In a frying pot (hopefully comes with a basket and a lid), heat up 3 cups of canola oil (or more if needed) on medium high heat. Test the temperature of the oil by sticking the end of a wooden chopstick into it. If it bubbles up quickly along the side of the chopstick, the oil is ready. DON’T CROWD THE FRYING POT. Depending on the size of pot, only put as many pieces of chicken in at a time so that they still have rooms to move around in the pot. Start frying the chicken 1 batch at a time until they turn golden brown on all sides. Keep the done-batches warm in the preheated oven on a baking sheet when you are frying the next batch. It took me 4 batches to fry all the pieces.
When the meats are frying, finely mince 3 cloves of garlic and set in a big bowl. Thai basil is traditionally used in the recipe but I added a few other herbs that I’m growing in my apartment which are sage, mint, rosemary and shiso leaf. They are all optional EXCEPT for the basil.
When done frying all the chickens, keep’em warm in the oven, then take the frying basket out of the oil and place all the herbs in it. With the lid on (see picture), drop the basket into the hot oil. NOW. This is why a LID is VERY IMPORTANT. Herbs = a lot of water. Water + hot grease = SPLATTER! If you are looking for an excellent reason to renovate the kitchen, by all means leave the lid. If you are using a dutch oven or whatever instead of a frying pot, then immediately put the lid on after herbs are dropped. Either way, when the sizzling sound resides, that means the herbs are crispy. It’s safe to open the lid now. Lift the basket and add the crispy herbs to the minced garlic.
Add the chicken to the garlic and herbs. Sprinkle the spice mixture GENEROUSLY onto the chicken and toss to combine. I like to serve these chicken poppers on the baking sheet to keep them warm. Oh, and cayenne powder is more than welcome for sprinkling, too…