The World's Surprising Fried Chicken Capital
One of the most popular snacks in Japan is the little karaage, the world's surprising fried chickencapitalwhich is a delicate version of fried chicken that is eaten all over the country.
This crunchy snack is so popular that each year, hundreds of thousands of people vote in a nationwide contest to find out which karaage shop makes the best ones.
Even though shops from big cities like Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka should win the most awards in big competitions, they usually go to shops from a small town called Nakatsu City in the Oita prefecture on the southern island of Kyushu.
Every year in Japan, there is a competition called the Karaage Grand Prix. The winner gets to say that their fried chicken is the crispiest, juiciest, and most flavorful. Nearly 1,000 shops enter the competition.
Up until 2022, this contest was all about how popular a place was, with regular people voting for their favorite places. But in 2023, the rules will change. Taste tests will be done by judges, and the real winner of the best karaage will be named.
Why should we care about any of this? And why is it thought that this small town, Nakatsu, has the best-fried chicken in Japan, and maybe even the whole world?
With more attention and official tasters, karaage shops in Nakatsu City have more to lose and more to prove than shops in other parts of the country. Now, the city's whole reputation as the karaage capital of Japan is at risk, along with hundreds of years of cultural food history.
First, let's talk about what karaage is. Pronounced like "karate," but with a hard "g" instead of a "t," it's a type of fried chicken that's popular in Japan because it's easy to make and has a lot of different flavors.
It's a lightly battered bird that's mostly made of potato starch. It's made up of nugget-sized pieces of chicken thighs, breasts, necks, and wings that have been marinated in mixtures of soy sauce, ginger, salt, garlic, fruits, and other secret ingredients that make your mouth water when you take a bite.
People wait in lines around the block to get their favorites, and the late Anthony Bourdain was crazy about them:
I'm addicted to these deep-fried chicken cutlets… It's a guilty pleasure. I know exactly where to find a Lawson in Narita International Airport, and I never get on the plane without loading up on these bad boys.- Anthony Bourdain
The Japan Karaage Association even made a movie about karaage, calling it the "ultimate national food" in the film.
But at its core, karaage is the result of a long history that spans continents, the age of exploration, the mixing of cultures, famine, and two world wars. It's not like any other fried chicken, and it's thought of as the soul food of Nakatsu.
The history of karaage can be traced back to the 16th century, when Portuguese missionaries came to Japan through the port of Nagasaki on Kyushu Island and brought with them their fried cooking techniques.
Slowly, people in Japan began to use some of these Western ideas to make what we now call tempura. At the time, however, most Japanese people were pescatarian, which might have been because they were Buddhist.
The island nation didn't start eating chicken until a terrible thing happened. During the Kyh era (1716–1736), a large-scale famine killed tens of thousands of people and almost wiped out the rice crop on the island of Kyushu.
Livestock Production in Kyushu (in Japanese) says that in order to get farmers' finances back on track, they were told to raise more chickens so they could sell more eggs. Eventually, when the chickens that laid eggs were no longer productive, people started to eat them.
The next big change in the Japanese diet happened in 1868 when the country's new emperor began a radical reform of society.
He adopted many Western ideas about industrialization, military technology, and even people's diets. Emperor Meiji opened the country's borders, which brought more food ideas from China and the West. This meant that people ate more meat.
But fried chicken, especially karaage, didn't become the staple it is today until after World War II. After the war, Japan was in bad shape and there was a lot of trouble getting food. Because there wasn't enough rice, the Japanese diet changed in a big way.
The United States was in charge of importing food. It brought in wheat, which led to more noodle-based dishes (like ramen), as well as broiler chickens, which are raised for their meat and are easier and faster to raise than cows or pigs.
The island of Kyushu was already known as a center for chickens (today, more than half of all broiler chickens come from Kyushu), and new ways to cook meat spread quickly and helped feed a country that was starving.
Karaage can be traced back to a Chinese restaurant called Rairaiken in Usa City, which is right next door to Nakatsu City. In the late 1950s, this restaurant started to include deep-fried chicken karaage as part of a set menu.
From there, it ran across the street to a small izakaya (tavern) called Shosuke, where Rairaiken taught the cooks how to fry food. At first, the owner of Shosuke bought chickens from local farmers and sold them to butchers while his wife served customers karaage and sake.
But he had a problem. Most of the people who ate at his karaage restaurant were rice farmers, and they could only pay for his food and drinks when the rice harvest came in. This meant that he was always trying to get money and his business was barely making it.
At the same time, bigger farms started to mass-produce broiler chickens, which made his business of selling chickens less profitable. Usa Karaage's US president, Yuko Yoshitake said:
Shosuke quit the izakaya and started the first take-out restaurant serving only karaage. He also switched his target to housewives who paid cash up front, instead of husbands who paid late and drank [too much] sake.- Yuko Yoshitake
This change to only serving karaage was a big hit with Americans, who loved this cheap, quick, and tasty source of protein. Usa has more than 40 karaage shops and is one of the most popular places to get this perfectly fried treat.
But the move to neighboring Nakatsu is what made this fried chicken famous across the country and then around the world.
Both Arata Hosokawa and Shoji Moriyama were crazy about karaage and thought they could make the fried food taste better. Yoshitake says that in 1970, each man opened his own karaage shop in Nakatsu.
There, they improved the marinating process by adding apple pieces and brining the chicken for a longer time to give it more flavor. The shops were a hit right away and led to a lot of copycats, which helped make Nakatsu the center of karaage.
Today, chefs in Nakatsu have made karaage even better than it was before. Due to the healthy competition between the nearly 50 shops, chefs have changed everything from cooking times and batters to different marinades made with soy sauce and salt.
Nearly every shop in Nakatsu has a secret ingredient that makes their karaage stand out from the rest, but they won't tell you what it is.
Take Torishin, a shop run by Nakatsu's karaage master Shinichi Sumi, who has won the Karaage Grand Prix's Grand Gold Award five times. Sumi spent 15 years getting his recipe for karaage just right. He cooks each part of the chicken at a different temperature today, and his karaage is always rated the best in Nakatsu.
Then there's Takae Tateishi, who owns Kokko-ya, one of the few karaage shops run by a woman. Her salt-rice-malt marinade and desire to make everything from scratch make it one of the most unique places in the city.
What I can say with confidence is that I carefully remove the extra fat from the chicken. I'm absolutely confident in how I prepare the meat.- Takae Tateishi
Tateishi said that his chicken is softer and has a spicier taste that makes your mouth burn.
And then there's Kouji Moriyama, whose shop Moriyama won the first Karaage Grand Prix. Kouji is the nephew of Shoji Moriyama, the man who started Nakatsu karaage. He makes a salty, crispy karaage that bursts with juices when you bite into it. He also uses a mix of fruits that he won't tell you about to give his chicken a unique flavor.
But karaage is more than just a food in Nakatsu; it's a way of life. Karafes is a karaage festival that happens every fall. It draws up to 50,000 people from all over Japan and the world, and almost every shop takes part to bring attention to the city.
The town also holds the Guinness World Record for the largest serving of fried chicken, which was set in 2019 and weighed 1,667.301kg (3,675lb, 12oz).
Nakatsu has more than 40 shops, and everyone in the city has their own favorite. It takes them back to when they were young.
It came out of poverty, fed a starving island, and became a tasty symbol that can now be found at weddings, birthdays, and big events like Christmaswhen millions of Japanese eat fried chicken. And the Karaage Grand Prix is their way to show that their city is the beating heart of fried chicken in Japan because of this lineage.
In 2010, the Karaage Grand Prix began in Tokyo as a national competition to rank karaage and spread the word about this tasty snack all over the country. Up until 2022, the only way to vote was online, and the awards usually went to the most popular karaage shops.
Kouichiro Yagi of the Japan Karaage Association says, "[in 2023] a taste test by the judges will be included to further improve the value of the awards."
The judges will decide based on the color of the frying, the batter, how well the meat and batter go together, how juicy the meat is, how tasty it is, how much you get for your money, and how hot it is (too much heat can cause burns).
When you talk to the shop owners in Nakatsu about past competitions, they don't seem too interested. But it was clear that everyone thought this year was different. Shinichi Sumi from Torishin said, "The next one is real. I want the challenge and I'm going to try to win."
Masahiko Inoue, who runs the Nakatsu Karaage Association, has a philosophical view of the 2023 Grand Prix and Nakatsu's place in the world of karaage.
The next competition is important because people will know which shop is really number one. But ultimately, I want everyone to know that Nakatsu karaage is special. And that it is branded. The same way certain wagyu beef is branded. It's like a seal of approval that comes from Nakatsu.- Masahiko Inoue
Karaage is a reminder of how Japan overcame problems by working hard and coming up with new ideas. And for the people who live in Nakatsu, soul food is what makes them feel most at home.