In Japan, I Found Home Through Fried Chicken

I’m not the first person to say that food is our greatest diplomat, and I won’t be the last. But how else could I have found myself in another country, across the world, looking for a dish I grew up on?

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Feb 13 2018, 3:00pm

About an hour after unpacking in Shimokitazawa, I started asking around for karaage. Couldn’t even wait a day. I’d flown to Tokyo for the second time in two years for a number of reasons—but the biggest one was food. The first time around, I’d eaten my way through an entire checking account: in packed izakayas stuffed sideways across Shibuya, and train station ramen stalls dishing out tsukemen. You had the gyoza stands in Yoyogi Park, with dough as tender as fish-meat, and the hole-in-the-walls hawking katsudon, and curry diners up and down Shinjuku. I gorged on nikujaga in open stalls under the rain—with their beef and potatoes still simmering in my bowl—between three, four, and five variations of tamago-kake gohan, the eggs still runny over rice, moistening every grain.

But what really got me, then and now, was the karaage: fried deeply; chewed gently; bite-sized; in helpings of five and six pieces at a time. Karaage itself refers to a manner of cooking: the meal is marinated, seasoned, and double-fried in a light coating. Your result is highly crispy and packed with flavor. There’s octopus and pork, or squid and perch, or any other animal from land or sea. But when most folks mention the dish, they’re probably talking about chicken—tori no karaage. Flaky and fleshy, and sliced just large enough for chopsticks, it’s loads lighter on your stomach than the fried chicken we typically associate with the States: Putting away five or six pieces of karaage feels a little like a wing or two in the American South.

But the dish begs for those portions—each piece’s flavor is significant. Maybe a hint of ginger, maybe a hint of sake, and it’s all just faint enough to leave you reaching for more. You could probably eat karaage all day, most days, until you figured enough was enough; then, you could probably eat some more.

There’s probably a joke somewhere about a black American flying halfway around the world for fried chicken. But what’s more interesting than a simplistic reductionism is the question of how fried chicken brings so many people together: I should probably preface this with the fact that I’ve spent my whole life eating the dish, across backyards in Orlando, and barstools in New Orleans, and patios in Houston and fuck-knows-how-many kitchens. There was stumbling into Willie Mae’s, or jogging under the overpass for Manchu, or loafing around the counter of the Frenchy’s on Scott Street. When my Jamaican mother’s family fried their batches in Kingston, they’d fluff the meat in a yolky dough. My aunts in Florida stuffed everything in plastic bags, saturating thighs with salt, shaking the hell out of every limb. And an ex of mine favored his grandmother’s recipe, which she’d perfected in South Korea—marinated in garlic, dipped in honey-stirred gochujang, served over beers in our table on the floor.

So fried chicken, and its many permutations, were my introduction to gastronomy. But it was also one of my first lessons in diplomacy, and intimacy, and the meal’s role as a conduit. And then there were the ways that recipes and stories move across the Earth, from table, to countertop, to pit, to lawn.

My first night in Tokyo, at a takoyaki stand by my BnB, I asked the guy dousing the octopus where he recommended I start. He kindly dealt with my poor Japanese before switching over to English. A good spot, he said, was actually in Asakusa. Then he pulled the spot up on my phone. He asked if I was good with directions. I told him I wasn’t, because I’m not, but he laughed and said my stomach would self-correct.

He wasn’t wrong about that, but it took me a while. I caught the Keio line headed out of the closest station. After an hour of walking in circles, it finally started raining, and I ended up under an awning beside this older guy in a suit. Eventually, he asked me if I was lost. Said he didn’t mean to be rude, but he’d seen me walk by twice. When I told him I was, I showed him my phone, and he smiled, pointing behind me: The stand was a block away.

You could probably eat karaage all day, most days, until you figured enough was enough; then, you could probably eat some more.

There wasn’t a line or anything. I asked the lady behind the counter for three pieces. The meat was just hot enough, with skin that was crazy flaky, and also extremely soft. Like, if you licked it, the batter would slide right off, but the crunch would remain intact. I went back up to the counter for four more pieces, and the woman behind the counter laughed. She said something I couldn’t follow, and I nodded along. Then she gave me a thumbs up. I gave her one, too.

I was in town for a few weeks, and I’d planned on nine different karaage spots, but that quickly turned into something like 20. Some were recommended specifically by friends, and others I’d heard about out in the world. But, mostly, I just stepped into places I thought looked interesting. I’d ask a bartender, or a chef, or the next person in line what was good. Every single time, they led me to somewhere delicious—and, in this way, I found myself in parts of Tokyo I wouldn’t have thought to explore otherwise.


WATCH: How-To: Koji Fried Chicken with Angela Dimayuga


It wasn’t a conscious decision to end up in parlors tucked in Ueno or Nakameguro, or a bar on the fringes of a protest in Kasumigaseki, or wandering in laps in search of a karaage stand in Tokyo Station. At one spot, tucked beside Shinjuku-Sanchome Station, a group of kids fucked up from midday drinking pointed out their favorites. I stepped into another place, off of a sidestreet in Meguro, after the chef behind the window beckoned me in (I’d already passed the window twice). He sliced samples of each piece, passing them in tongs over the bar.

I asked this guy if he ate karaage, and he looked at me like I was a fucking idiot. He put a hand on my shoulder. Everyone, he said, knows where to find karaage, even if they don’t eat it, because they probably know someone who does.

Without fail, no matter which venue I tried, I found delicious karaage in all of them. But more than that, people who were willing to share things: their meal, their space, and that particular moment in time. No one had to do that. And certainly not for a foreigner, in a moment as disastrous as ours. But in a country where I wasn’t even the distant minority, that willingness to share fried chicken translated wholly across oceans.

One afternoon around lunch time, walking back to my place, I came across a KFC just outside of the train station. It had the trademark red banner. There was a line, but it wasn’t formidable. The service was quick, and the chicken smelled crisp, and after walking a bag of wings to the park, it turned out it was pretty good, too—flavorful, and crunchy. But there wasn’t a linger. The recipe wasn’t salty. The batter felt heavier on the stomach, and it was, pretty obviously, made with a larger audience in mind.

For better and worse, it was a nice reminder of home. So I finished the bag and trashed it, watching some kids across the street watch me.

One time in Houston, where I live, some friends of mine threw a potluck. After fighting for a week over group chat, we decided that we’d all bring our takes on fried chicken. The intent was that each of us would cook own recipe, or one we’d grown fond of, or one we’d grown up on. And the night of the meal, one batch smelled of curry and thyme. Another pair of legs held a hint of yogurt. A third had a wealth of paprika, and it was all the same dish, but none of them was the same.

Maybe it’s unreasonable to say that I didn’t have a single piece of bad chicken in Tokyo. But, truth is, karaage is worth traveling over 6,000 miles. Or the short drive to your mother’s. Or walking to the chicken shack up the road. Or searching out the recipe online or whatever, trying your hand until you nail what you’re looking for. I’m not the first person to say that food is our greatest diplomat, and I won’t be the last person to parrot that truth. But how else could I have found myself in another country, across the world, looking for a dish I came up on?

All of which is to say that I found my best recommendation in a gay bar. I asked this guy if he ate karaage, and he looked at me like I was a fucking idiot. He put a hand on my shoulder. Everyone, he said, knows where to find karaage, even if they don’t eat it, because they probably know someone who does.

He asked where I was staying, and I told him. He told me he’d had a boyfriend there once. There was a spot somewhere beside a nearby station, and he pulled up the map on his phone, pointing to a tiny little building, not much larger than a pop-up, and it stood less than a ten-minute walk from where I’d been sleeping. I thanked him, and he told me that it was his pleasure.

The next day, I showed up. There the karaage stand sat at an intersection, posted up along a curb. Two people leaned behind a glass display. I asked for three pieces, and the lady behind the counter pulled up four fingers. I told her four pieces worked, and she switched to five fingers. When she smiled, I acquiesced. She pulled out five, and then added another. Five minutes later, I walked back for four more.

The weather was crisp. Every now and then, a motorbike passed, or some lone walker tucked under jackets, and they’d see my bag, and they’d nod. I gathered some gyoza from another stand nearby, with cigarettes from the Lawson’s, and it was, I think, the best way the search could’ve ended, but definitely not the only way—there being as many manners as constellations in the sky. Or karaage pieces in the city, in a world that’s both unprecedented and amazing.