This is the best salt and pepper chicken or Taiwanese popcorn chicken that will leave you craving for more. In Taiwan, you will find this fried chicken offered as street food. Prepared in bite-sized pieces, it is super crispy on the outside while the meat inside remains juicy. What makes this really addictive is the special marinade and seasoning. The marinade is made to enhance the deliciousness of the meat and also to get rid of the poultry smell. Meanwhile, the salt seasoning powder uses the fragrant five spice powder which is made of Chinese cinnamon, fennel seed, star anise, cloves and pepper. That's a winning combination.
Why this recipe works?
It tastes better than those sold at Chinese takeaway. The ratio of ingredients used in the marinade gives a delicious flavour to the chicken and the perfect golden brown makes it look extremely appetizing. Most importantly, the secret salt seasoning is not overpowering with spices which may lead to bitterness. Here, I also share the technique of double frying the chicken. You will find the guide on the precise duration for both cycles.
Differences with other fried chicken
Although it is a fried chicken dish, it feels rather light compared to those sold at fast food restaurants. The Taiwanese version comes in small boneless chunks which makes gobbling them up easy. Another big difference is the light flour coating which consists of a thin layer and is extremely crumbly, made possible only with tapioca starch.
Chicken thigh vs breast vs wings
It is highly recommended to use chicken thigh because of its fat content. Even after deep frying, the meat pieces will remain juicy. I made this without the skin but if you are someone who loves eating chicken skin, keep it. Unlike chicken breasts, they may be too dry after frying. The latter is, however a “healthier” version. Chicken wings will also work just fine with this recipe.
Substitute of tapioca starch
Tapioca starch or flour (in the US) is highly recommended if you want to replicate the infamous crunchiness. Another possible substitute is sweet potato starch that is commonly used in Taiwan. Otherwise, potato starch may be another replacement. While corn starch may be used, it is not as good as tapioca or sweet potato starch.
Why and how to double fry
Since the chunks are so small, it is not recommended to fry the chicken pieces for such a long time or they will dry up. However, the crispy layer will not develop if they are fried for a short period of time. The solution? Double frying!
The first fry is to ensure that the meat is cooked. During this cycle, the temperature of the hot oil will reduce once the chicken pieces are added. The temperature will gradually increase during frying. Therefore, you may reduce the heat so that the chicken pieces do not get burnt.
The second cycle is to create the signature crispiness. Increase the heat to the initial temperature, then add the fried chicken pieces. The higher heat will make the outer layer crispy, thus creating the lovely crunch.
Soggy fried chicken
This happens when the temperature of the oil is low. Instead of frying, the batter will soak up the oil instead. To guarantee perfect crisp, do:
Use a thermometer - During the first fry, ensure that the temperature reaches 175 degrees Celsius (350 Fahrenheit). The heat should be increased to 187 degrees Celsius (370 Fahrenheit) for the second fry. If you don't have a thermometer, use the granny's trick to dip a wooden chopstick into the hot oil. If bubbles appear around the chopstick, the oil is ready.
Do not crowd the pan - This will decrease the temperature of the oil drastically. If your pan or wok has a small surface, fry in batches.
Avoid dark or black crumbs
You will notice this happening when the oil is too hot or the chicken chunks have been fried for too long. Reduce the heat a notch or move the pan away from the heat source to let it cool a little before continuing. Remember, it should only take about 2 to 3 minutes during the first fry.
If you are frying in batches. the excess crumbs may continue to fry as you go on. Always use an oil skimmer to remove the fried chicken and leftover crumbs before you start frying a new batch.
Oven and air fryer settings
Salt and pepper chicken can be made in an air fryer or baked in an oven. For both cooking methods, less oil is needed.
To use an air fryer or oven, cook the chicken pieces at 200 degrees Celsius (400 Fahrenheit) for about 8 to 10 minutes before turning them over. Continue cooking until done. Always use parchment paper or spray the surface with oil to prevent sticking. Before cooking, drizzle or spray some oil onto the chicken. It makes the chicken crispier.
Substitute for Thai basil
If it is not attainable, replace it with sweet basil leaves. The basil flavour will not be as obvious if you substitute it at a ratio of 1:1. Compared to the Thai variation, sweet basil is not as sharp in taste. Therefore, consider adding more sweet basil than the recommended amount.
Salt seasoning powder or dipping sauce
The salt seasoning is a must try, just like how it is offered in Taiwan. For a delicious dipping sauce, serve the dish with some sweet Thai chilli sauce.
How to serve?
Just like how they do it in Taiwan, munch on them as snacks or appetizers. You can also serve it with plain white rice or fried rice.
If you decide to fry a whole chicken thigh instead, why not serve it as salt and pepper chicken burger or sandwich?