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 think 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”
JuJust 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.
Chicken Nanban is always served with a side of Japanese tartar sauce, and it usually includes some thinly shredded cabbage on the side. In a Chicken Nanban Teishoku (定食 – set meal), it also typically includes a bowl of rice and miso soup.
In Japan, Chicken Nanban is usually prepared using skin-on boneless chicken leg, which includes the meat from the thigh and drumstick in one piece. If you can’t find this cut near you, you can either debone whole chicken legs yourself, or you can substitute chicken thighs. This can also be made with chicken breast, but I recommend butterflying the breast, so that it cooks through more evenly, and it will not be as juicy or flavorful as using chicken legs.
While it won’t stay crisp forever, the egg coating won’t dissolve into mush over time like a flour or potato starch coating would, which makes Chicken Nanban perfect for packing into a bento box lunch. You can include the whole leg sliced, or you can cut the leg into smaller bite-size pieces before dusting it with flour and coating it with egg.
Other Japanese Chicken Recipes
- Japanese Sweet & Sour Chicken
- Chicken Teriyaki
- Japanese Chicken Sandwich
- Japanese Fried Chicken
- Chicken Katsu
- 1 medium-boiled egg peeled and finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon celery finely chopped
- ½ scallion minced
- 2 tablespoons mayonnaise Japanese mayo works best
- ½ teaspoon whole grain mustard
- ¼ teaspoon lemon zest from 1/2 lemon
- 1 teaspoon lemon juice
- ⅛ teaspoon ground white pepper (to taste)
- 1 pinch salt (to taste)
- 2 tablespoons usukuchi soy sauce light color , not low sodium
- 2 tablespoons sake
- 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
- ½ teaspoon fresh ginger grated
- 2 tablespoons rice vinegar
- vegetable oil for frying
- 450 grams boneless skin-on chicken thighs
- ¼ cup all-purpose flour for dusting
- 1 jumbo egg
- 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. Continue boiling for 1 minute and then turn off the heat and stir in the vinegar.
- 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'll want to flip the chicken over a few times, but be careful not to break the crust off off the chicken.
- Dip the fried chicken in the sauce, flipping it over a few times to coat it evenly.
- Slice and serve the chicken with the tartar sauce.