Taiwanese Popcorn Chicken (yan2su1ji1 鹽酥雞)

yan su ji taiwanese popcorn chicken

When my sister and I were younger, my mom would sometimes take us out for smoothies/drinks or tapioca milk tea, more affectionately known as boba nai cha, or “bubble” tea (east coasters only) at a small Taiwanese boba place. This little cafe had tasty and fairly-priced drinks and an assortment of Taiwanese fried snacks. We would go mostly for an after-school snack, and get a drink each, and oftentimes, yan2su1ji1. They were tiny little nuggets of chicken that was first seasoned well then lightly battered and fried. The chicken would come in a small paper bag, along with flash fried Thai basil (fried chicken and basil go hand in hand) and small skewers for us to use to transfer the fried goodies to our mouths.

 Sometimes I would be too full from crispy crunchy chicken and my drink (usually green or red bean slushy with boba) to have a full dinner. Woops!

We were at a friends’ house for dinner tonight, and since they were going to show us pictures of their Taiwan trips and make us 牛肉麵 (Beef Noodle Soup), we thought that Taiwanese Popcorn Chicken would be a nice addition to the Taiwan-themed night.

What is Taiwanese Popcorn Chicken? It’s fried little pieces of chicken, that is first marinated in all sorts of aromatic and yummy stuff…Then it’s coated with sweet potato starch to yield a crunchy outside that has crackly bits due to the little bits of sweet potato starch. After it comes out of the oil, you add more seasonings such as white pepper and 5 spice powders, and cayenne pepper powder..! It’s spicy, it’s savory, crunchy, and goes so well with the bits of fried Thai basil. I don’t drink alcohol, but if I did, I imagine it would be great with some beer, too!

Ingredient Spotlight: Sweet potato starch is often used in Taiwanese deep frying..fried chicken, fried pork chops, fried..stuff. Yay!

sweet potato starch (coarse)

Look for chunks of un-powdered sweet potato starch; those small chunks give the chicken crust its speckly/spotted appearance. The word below the Net Wt is ‘cu’ which means coarse. Get the coarse one!

Now for the recipe:

Yan Su Ji 
鹽酥雞
Taiwanese Popcorn Chicken

inspired by YTower
Makes 4 very generous appetizer/snack servings, or 8 normal appetizer/snack servings.

Ingredients:
For the marinade:
1.5 lbs boneless chicken breast or thigh meat, preferably skin on
10 cloves garlic
1/2″ piece of ginger, sliced
2-3 stalks scallions, chopped into 3-4 inch lengths
1 Tbsp sweet soy sauce, like Taiwanese jiang4you2gao1(醬油膏), kecap manis, OR 2 tsp soy sauce + 1 tsp sugar
1 Tbsp sugar
1 Tbsp rice wine
1/4 tsp 5 spice powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/2 cup Thai basil leaves, plucked, washed and dried (optional but highly, highly recommended)

For the frying:
1-2 cups sweet potato starch; amount may vary depending on how much sticks to your fingers or utensils! Get the coarse sweet potato starch, NOT the “thin” or fine. This is important if you want the cracklies.
Canola oil; the exact amount depends on your cooking vessel

Post-fry:
Kosher or sea salt
1 Tbsp white pepper powder + 1 Tbsp 5 spice powder, mixed together
Cayenne pepper powder

Instructions:

1) Cut the chicken into thumb-sized pieces, or bite-sized pieces. The smaller the chunk, the larger crunchy crust to chicken ratio.

2) Use a mini food processor or mortar and pestle to mash marinade ingredients (minus chicken, that is) into a paste. Add a few Tbsp of water as needed, to either help the blending process or to help not waste bits of marinade leftover in the container when you transfer it to the chicken.

3) Marinate the chicken with ingredients from step #2 for at least 30 minutes in the refrigerator, but longer is even better and won’t hurt anything.

4) Heat a big wok of oil to 300F.

5) The faster but lazier way:  Coat a dozen or so of chicken pieces at a time:
Pour the starch over a mound of chicken pieces and use your hands to gently
coat the chicken with the starch. There will be a build-up of wet starch on your fingers, but this approach is easier when you have multiple dozens of chicken pieces of fry!

The best/least wasteful way:
Shake off any majorly excess marinade from the chicken, and coat each piece in a very thin coating of sweet potato starch.

6) Shake off excess starch from each chicken piece before frying; you can probably do about a dozen chicken pieces at a time, or more, so long as your temperature stays close to 300F.

7) Fry the chicken for about 2 minutes, or until it is golden brown.

8) If you are using Thai basil, fry these separately from the chicken; fry the basil leaves until they start to wrinkle and turn a darker shade of green; they should be cooked until they are shriveled and crispy.

9) Transfer fried stuffs to a towel-lined drying rack or plate.

10) Toss chicken with the white pepper/5 spice mix you made above, cayenne pepper if you wish, and salt to taste.

11) Use tongs to gently toss the fried basil with the seasoned chicken so that the basil gets seasoned as well. The basil will be brittle, so be gentle!

12) Serve with skewers or toothpicks! Or just grab them with your hands.

Taiwanese Popcorn Chicken yan  su ji

You know you want to make some !

yan su ji taiwanese popcorn chicken
Notes/Substitutions:
-This recipe is quite forgiving/flexible, so feel free to experiment a bit, within reason. Don’t get too hung up on all the exact measurements of spices..!
If you can’t find sweet potato starch at the store, rice flour would be a semi-decent substitute, but you wouldn’t get crackly bumpy crunchy bits on the chicken surface 🙁
-No thermometer? Use a sacrificial piece of chicken to test the oil’s heat level. When the chicken is golden brown, the oil is hot enough. 
-If you REALLY don’t like the greenish tint from residual bits of marinade that you may see on a half-eaten piece of chicken, you can omit the scallions if you wish….but I think it must add to the flavor, so please re-consider? 🙂  
-If you like eating cartilage, feel free to get bone-in drumsticks (in which case, get 3 lbs, and debone your chicken instead. Cut off the cartilage pieces on the ends of the drums and throw them into the marinade, as well.
-If you are trying to be health-conscious, you can use skinless meat. But then…maybe this recipe wouldn’t be suitable for healthy eating, anyway? 😉

10 Comments

  1. so much win! thanks for posting this.
    I ate this yesterday, crossing my fingers and hoping for no egg.
    And look– I can not only eat it, I can make it! 🙂

  2. Haha yay, no egg is right! No flour either! I think , though, you need to not add any cayenne pepper to yours. 🙂

  3. I just made this for small group and it was delicious! Everyone loved it. Such an easy to follow recipe. Thanks ABC chef!

    • Megan

      May 29, 2015 at 9:56 am

      Hurray! I’m glad that it was easy to follow, and that people enjoyed 🙂 You are most welcome, Elisa! Thank you for the comment.

  4. This recipe is AMAZING! I’ve tried several others, but this one is the best! I did marinade with the sweet potato starch instead of baking soda tho. And, crushing the marinade ingredients with a mortar and pestle really made the flavours soak into the chicken.

    Thanks for the recipe!!

    • Mo(ses)- Thanks for your comment! I’m thrilled that you enjoyed the recipe so much! One of the best feelings is being able to create food we love, eh? 🙂

  5. I hope I get a reply >_< so I\'m wondering if sweet potato powder is the same thing or can it be used? I also have tapioca starch and wheat starch. If these could all be used which comes out the best?

    • Hi Fiona! What does your sweet potato powder look like? Is it white in color like cornstarch, and either powdery (fine) or clumpy (coarse) in texture? If so, that’s the right one.

      I wouldn’t recommend wheat starch- I fear it would be gummy. As for tapioca starch, maybe, but I’m not comfortable recommending it because I personally haven’t ever used it in deep frying. If you try it, please let me know!!

      BTW, I googled ‘sweet potato powder’ and found some American manufacturers, where it is orange and looks like dried and pulverized sweet potato. In any case, I guess it depends on if you are going from the English translation of this ingredient from a Chinese producer’s product, or from an American product.

      Sorry for the long-winded answer! Hope this helps. I try to always respond, but my inbox has been a bit strange lately in sending me notifications!

      • Hi Megan thanks for your quick reply! Too bad I can\’t post a pic on here. But it is a Chinese brand, my mom translated and said it\’s yam powder, today I just saw in really tiny words that it\’s for frying, so I guess I could use this? It is white in color and I\’m also not sure I need to dip in egg first before dipping it in the dry stuff?

        • Hi Fiona,
          Yes, that’s the right one, then. Nope, no need to dip it in egg- just follow the recipe and it will turn out! 🙂

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