Taiwanese Food Odyssey Day 1: Late Night Fried Chicken

16 08 2009

chi pai in bagThe first few Taiwan posts (or maybe all of them) are going to be backdated, because I’m behind.

I landed in Taiwan at 10:30pm.  After 30 hours of travel and 3 airplane meals, my stomach was lonely and ready for some good Taiwanese lovin.  The first thing my in-laws asked as we left the airport, God bless them, was what I wanted to eat.  They know me well.

For weeks, I’d been daydreaming of one delicacy in particular: fried chicken, or chi pai.  They took us to a chi pai place called  “Two Peck,” which is actually a local chain.  But the local chains here are often just as good as any mom-and-pop.  This one didn’t disappoint.

Basically, chi pai is a breast or thigh of chicken, bone-in, with skin, pounded flat and battered so that it looks like a cutlet, and deep-fried.  It’s often served on rice, but in my opinion the best way to have it is as pictured, served in a handsome paper bag, to be eaten as one might a sandwich.  (One of many great things about Taiwanese food: it’s often greasy or wet with sauce, but the Taiwanese hate to get their hands dirty, so the food is usually packaged in such a way that you never have to touch it, unless it’s a crab or something.)

Picture 010I’d been fantasizing about chi pai because there’s just something special about it.  The Taiwanese have managed to make a hunk of fried meat, one of the most primitive satisfactions in the universe, into something ineffable.  I am a big fan of Southern fried chicken, but make mine chi pai every time.

What’s so special about it?  It’s battered with sweet potato starch, not wheat flour like Southern fried, which I think makes it a little lighter.  But more importantly, it’s got a combination of salt and sweet that you don’t get in Southern fried.  The combo of sweet potato and salt in the fried coating is part of it, but I think the blend of soy sauce and sugar in which the chicken is marinated is the key, because it penetrates the entire piece of meat.  The contrast and harmony between salt and sweet is one of the fundamental building blocks of Chinese cooking.

Then there are other, minor flavor notes to add complexity–the umami (savoriness) of the fermented soy sauce, white pepper, garlic.  There are likely also some secret ingredients not listed in the standard recipes, because in the best chi pai I can detect certain indescribable subtones of flavor that take it to another level of subtlety.  In this one I thought I detected a cooling, fragrant hint of celery seed.  Then there is the genius of chi pai geometry–pounding it flat gives it a greater surface-area-to-volume ratio than Southern fried, which means you get a greater fried-to-chicken ratio.  And we all know that in life, the fried is more important than the chicken.

Picture 007Chi pai joints will usually also serve other fried foodstuffs.  This time I got these fried rice-and-daikon cakes, shown here in cross-section, as a side.  The contrast between the crisp shell and the soft, almost gelatinous cake inside is one of the signature pleasures of Chinese food, and the clean, mild sweetness of the daikon was a nice follow-up to the heavy, fatty flavor of the chicken.  As a bonus, there was a nice little piece of pork in the center of the cake, like a little gift, a little twinge of savory to round out the flavor profile.  (Using shreds of meat as a flavoring, rather than as the main attraction, is another common technique in Chinese food–as you’ll see.)

After gulping down a Coke, which, as in America, is a standard complement to fried stuff, I was ready for my jetlag-and-grease-induced coma.  My latest gastro tour of Taiwan had begun perfectly.

Here’s a link to a chi pai recipe if you want to try it (let me know how it goes): http://mickyrecipes.blogspot.com/2008/10/taiwanese-fried-chicken-secrets.html




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