Walking the streets of Japan, there is a high chance that a tourist will come across a food stall selling different kinds of fried food, most of which are made from chicken. These may seem like the local’s take on Western cuisine but they are actually traditional Japanese dishes known as kara-age. The distinctive, savory taste of kara-age and the many variations it comes in makes it a dish worth trying out at least once.
What is Kara-age?
Even amongst locals, the clear definition of the Japanese term kara-age is quite muddled. The majority of the public closely associates kara-age with fried chicken. This bit of knowledge is not wrong but fails to give justice to the true meaning of the word.
Although kara-age is often made with chicken, the term is actually used to refer to a traditional Japanese cooking method that involves various meat and fish being deep fried in a light oil. The process requires the chosen meat to be cut into small pieces, marinated in a sauce, then lightly coated with potato starch before being cooked.
The marinade used in kara-age often involves soy sauce. Regardless of what kind of meat, fish, or vegetables are used as the main ingredient, consumers can expect a juicy interior encased in a crunchy fried batter. As such, using the term kara-age to refer to fried chicken or all fried food is fine either way as long as the definitive taste and texture are there.
Are there Different Types of Kara-age?
Some variants of kara-age include chicken kara-age, octopus kara-age, squid tentacle kara-age, and vegetable kara-age. Out of all the different kinds of kara-age, the chicken kara-age is the most popular and has become the standard image of kara-age in Japan.
There are, of course, different kinds of chicken kara-age available at different locations in the country. With each prefecture claiming they have the best version of the dish, the verdict really just lies on one’s preference in taste.
Kyushu Island is often praised for having introduced the world of kara-age to other parts of Japan. However, this origin story is just as debatable as the definition of kara-age. Regardless, the island does have a notable amount of kara-age shops that offer several variations, all of which are worth trying.
Ironically, the most popular kara-age dish from the Oita Prefecture called toriten is made by combining the cooking method with another process, tempura. Instead of using potato starch to coat the marinated boneless chicken meat, a batter made from wheat flour is used, resulting in a lighter taste and texture. As such, toriten is often served as a topping for noodle dishes or as a separate side dish.
The Miyazaki Prefecture in Kyushu, Japan boasts of their local kara-age variation known as chicken nanban. The dish consists of bite-sized pieces of fried boneless chicken meat alongside a white tartar sauce. Unlike the usual soy sauce marinade used for kara-age, chicken nanban makes use of a special sauce, called nanban sauce, that combines spicy, sour, sweet, and salty flavors.
Given its already flavorful meat and equally mouthwatering sauce, chicken nanban has become so popular that many restaurants across Japan have the dish included in their menu books.
Japan’s northern island, Hokkaido refers to its own kara-age version as zangi, which comes from a Chinese term that means fried chicken. The dish itself has many variations which make use of either bone-in or boneless chicken meat. Regardless, all of them go through the same cooking process and are typically served with a peppery sauce on the side.
Nagoya, the capital of the Aichi Prefecture, is responsible for introducing one of the best bar snacks in Japan called tebasaki kara-age. Contrary to the standard boneless meat used for kara-age, this dish makes use of chicken wings, instead. Its marinade consists of several ingredients including mirin (rice wine), vinegar, sake, sugar, ginger, and garlic. Furthermore, the chicken wings are deep fried twice, to result in an extra crispy texture.
One of the most popular kara-age dishes that do not make use of chicken meat is the gurukun no kara-age. This dish originates from Okinawa, Japan, the same place where the gurukun fish, also known as banana fish, is most abundant.
Unlike other types of kara-age, gurukun no kara-age skips the process of dicing and marinating. It is simply made by lightly coating the whole fish in batter and deep frying it until it turns crispy. A slice of lemon is often served together with the fried gurukun to eliminate any fishy taste.
Looking for a place that serves kara-age is just as easy as looking for a place that serves sushi or ramen, if not easier. Given that the dish is more often served as a snack than a meal, tourists can find them in various establishments other than restaurants.
The equivalent of casual gastropubs in Japan is izakayas. The term izakaya was formed by combining the two Japanese terms – which means to stay, and sakaya, which means sake shop. As such, these informal Japanese pubs are one of the most visited places by locals looking to unwind and grab a drink after hours of working.
Another term used to refer to an izakaya is akachochin, which means red lantern. Fittingly, many izakayas feature paper lanterns in front of their stores. Other than being great photo backdrops, tourists can also use these to easily locate izakayas in the areas they will be visiting.
Many izakayas serve kara-age as an appetizer or snack to go with one’s order of sake, beer, or any other alcoholic beverage. A lot of customers attest that the savory flavor of the kara-age goes well with the bitterness of the alcohol. Capping off the night at an izakaya is sure to make for a pleasant experience for foreign travelers just as it does for locals.
As previously mentioned, tourists will most likely encounter at least one food stall selling kara-age during their trip to Japan. Nearly every city in the country houses kara-age vendors, most of which are located near stations or along narrow streets. Although these establishments may not be that appealing to look at, their selection of kara-age is able to compete with Japanese restaurants in terms of flavor.
Other than being yummy snacks for tourists to eat while strolling around Japan’s many attractions, they also make for great edible souvenirs. Compared to the kara-age sold in restaurants or specialty shops, the ones sold at food stalls often last longer without losing its savory taste and crispy texture.
Just like sushi, kara-age can also be found in many convenience stores across Japan. These ready to eat dishes can often be found on display next to the payment counter and are great for those looking to grab a quick lunch.
In the rare case that tourists will not be able to come across izakayas, vendors, or restaurants serving kara-age, a trip to the local convenience store will suffice. The kara-age served at these establishments are best described to be convenient, affordable, and tasty.
Foreign visitors who really want to try and enjoy kara-age in Japanese restaurants should make it a point to visit at least one of these highly recommended places:
Yamatoya is one of the best restaurants in Fukuoka that serve excellent kara-age don, a bowl of rice topped with kara-age. They make use of a garlic soy sauce marinade for their kara-age which results in savory pieces that go extremely well with rice. Aside from the distinctive flavors, their generous serving sizes also greatly contribute to their increasing popularity with locals and foreigners.
Kara-ageya Karijyu won the Kara-age Summit back in 2014. They use lard oil when deep frying their kara-age which results in a very crispy crust filled with juicy meat. Although there are seats available for customers to dine in, it is popular for being a take-out restaurant. Interestingly, the shop is located along the Shikoku Pilgrimage route in the Ehime Prefecture, making it a great place for foreign travelers to visit for more reasons than one.
Shinjiro is a specialty restaurant in Osaka that offers a wide array of chicken dishes. One of their most interesting meals is the 35-day old chick kara-age. It is served whole and features a surprisingly soft meat enclosed in a thin crispy crust.
Sekai no Yamachan Honten is popular for their deep fried chicken wings that come with a sweet and spicy sauce. The restaurant has a branch in Nagoya and several international ones in Thailand and Hong Kong.
Umakara Ramen Hyori serves a unique kara-age ramen that features large pieces of chicken kara-age on top of medium-thick noodles and a thick, spicy soup. The dish is known as Ankake Deluxe, which is available in different levels of spiciness. The restaurant is located in Tokyo and is just a minute walk away from the JR Suidobashi Station.
Foreign travelers going back to their respective countries can make kara-age at the comfort of their own homes. It is a relatively easy to prepare and cook, as dictated by the basic recipe below:
● 1 tablespoon of cooking sake
● 3 tablespoons of soy sauce
● 2 cloves of crushed garlic
● ¼ cup of potato starch
● 5 grams of grated fresh ginger
● 300 grams of boneless chicken thighs (with skin)
● Cooking oil
1. Cut the chicken thighs into bite-sized pieces, making sure to leave a small piece of skin on each piece for an extra crispy texture.
2. Combine and mix the cooking sake, soy sauce, crushed garlic and grated ginger in a bowl.
3. Add in the chicken into the bowl and coat each piece well.
4. Let the chicken marinade in the sauce for 30 minutes.
5. Remove or drain the excess sauce from the chicken.
6. Add and mix in the potato starch into the bowl, making sure each piece is fully coated.
7. Heat enough cooking oil for deep frying in a pan to about 180 degrees Celsius. The oil can be tested if it is hot enough for frying by dropping in some flour and checking if it immediately sizzles.
8. Once the oil is ready, fry four or five pieces of chicken at a time for about 3-4 minutes or until they turn golden brown. Afterward, remove from the oil and place on a kitchen roll or wire rack to get rid of excess oil.
9. Serve with Japanese mayonnaise or lemon wedges on the side.
For those who are not a fan of eating kara-age with mayonnaise or a sprinkle of lemon juice, the usual kara-age dipping sauce served at several stores can also be made at home. The simple recipe below makes a little over 600 ml of dipping sauce, which can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 3 weeks.
● 1 tablespoon of oyster sauce
● 1 teaspoon of sugar
● 1 inch of fresh ginger (grated)
● 60 ml of sake
● 600 ml of light soy sauce
1. Combine and mix all ingredients in a bowl.
2. Pour the mixture into a pan and heat.
3. Continuously stir the mixture until the sugar completely dissolves.
4. Let the sauce cool.
5. Store in a bottle or container.
Since kara-age is also used to refer to the preparation and cooking method of deep fried dishes, there are several other variations that differ from the standard of Japan but are still essentially a kara-age dish. The most popular one served in many Western restaurants is the kara-age burger, which is basically a fried chicken burger served with Japanese mayonnaise and coleslaw salad.
Those interested in making the unique combination of Japanese and Western cuisines can follow the basic recipe below:
● 3 tablespoons of mirin (rice wine)
● 3 tablespoons of light soy sauce
● 2 teaspoons of grated ginger
● ¾ cup of cornstarch
● ¼ cup of sesame seeds
● 1 clove of crushed garlic
● 2 small pieces of chicken breasts
● 4 burger buns
● Vegetable or canola oil
● Coleslaw salad
● Japanese mayonnaise
1. Slice each chicken breast in half along the horizontal to create flat ½-inch thick pieces then place in a bowl.
2. Add in the mirin, light soy sauce, grated ginger, and crushed garlic into the bowl.
3. Mix everything together, making sure the chicken breasts are fully coated with the sauce.
4. Let the chicken breasts marinate in the sauce for at least 30 minutes.
5. Combine and mix the cornstarch and sesame seeds in a dish.
6. Heat about half an inch of oil in a pan over medium heat.
7. Once the oil is hot enough, coat one of the marinated chicken breasts with the cornstarch and sesame seeds mixture then place it in the pan.
8. Fry the chicken breast for 4-5 minutes in the pan, per side, or until it turns golden brown.
9. While waiting for the chicken breast to be fully cooked, spread a light layer of Japanese mayonnaise on a burger bun.
10. After making sure the chicken breast has been cooked all through out, place it on the may-slicked burger bun and top with a generous amount of coleslaw salad.
11. Use a toothpick or half a barbecue skewer to keep the top bun and everything else in place.
12. Repeat steps 7-11 for the other piece of chicken breast.