I was born in a small town called Nobeoka on the southern island of Kyushu, Japan. Nobeoka isn’t known for much, but their virtually unknown claim to fame is a small diner not far from Nobeoka station, that invented Chicken Nanban (チキン南蛮). Through some miracle (or because the dish is so damn good), this humble dish managed to work its way from my hometown into Japanese restaurants across the world.
The irony is, like many famous Japanese dishes, Chicken Nanban has foreign roots. According to the creator, it was inspired by a dish called Nanbanzuké, which is made with fried fish and onions soaked in a sweet vinegar sauce.
If you’re thinking that this sounds a lot like escabeche, you’d be right. The Portuguese brought Peixe Frito de Escabeche to Japan in the mid 17th century along with other fried dishes such as Peixinhos Da Horta (better known as Tempura). The term “nanban” was originally used to refer to these European traders and missionaries, so nanbanzuké simply means “soaked European-style”
Just as the Portuguese dish evolved after arriving in Japan, Chicken Nanban has seen its share of changes as it spread back around the globe. Most recipes today have you prepare a flour or starch coated karaage, which is then soaked in sweet and sour nanban sauce. While it’s hard to go wrong with marinated fried chicken, the original recipe is simpler, yet the crisp, fluffy tendrils of egg coating the chicken are what make the dish so magical. Like a meringue, the egg makes an incredibly light batter that’s both adept at soaking up the nanban sauce while disappearing into a pool of flavor as the strands of egg dissolve in your mouth. Topped with a chunky lemon tartar sauce, the contrast of tastes and textures is sublime.
The trick to getting Naochan’s trademark shag carpet of egg on top, is to pour a little extra egg onto each piece of chicken after it’s been added to the oil. The egg blooms into a wooly nest as it hits the hot oil, while gravity pulls it down and anchors it to the chicken. After being fried the chicken is usually soaked in the nanban sauce for a few seconds, but since this requires a large amount of sauce, I prefer drizzling the sauce onto of the chicken over a wire rack.
With a side of citrusy tartar sauce, this chicken is almost as good at room temperature in a bento box as it is hot and crisp. I used a filleted whole chicken leg which is why it’s so large, but you can do this with boneless thighs as well. As for whether to leave the skin on or not, that’s up to you, personally I like to leave the skin on.
- To prepare the tartar sauce, add the boiled egg, celery, scallion, mayonnaise, mustard, lemon zest, and lemon juice to a bowl and stir to combine. Add salt and white pepper to taste.
- To make the nanban sauce, add the soy sauce, sake, sugar and ginger to a small saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. Boil for 1 minute and then add the vinegar. When the sauce returns to a boil, turn off the heat.
- Add 2-inches of oil to heavy bottomed pot and heat to 340 degrees F (170 C) and prepare a wire rack and pan.
- Trim any excess fat off the chicken and lightly salt and pepper.
- Dust the chicken with flour.
- Beat the egg in a bowl until uniform and then dip the chicken in the egg to thoroughly coat.
- Gently lower the egg coated chicken skin-side down into the hot oil and then drizzle a little of the remaining egg onto the tops of each piece of chicken. The egg will quickly "bloom" and spread out.
- Use tongs or chopsticks to fold the egg back over the chicken.
- Fry the chicken until it's golden brown and cooked through (about 6-8 minutes). You may need to flip the chicken over once halfway through to evenly brown the top.
- Transfer the fried chicken, fluffy side down to the wire rack and drizzle half the sauce onto the smooth side.
- Flip the chicken over and then drizzle the remaining sauce onto the fluffy side.
- Slice and serve the chicken with the tartar sauce immediately.