There are many ways to fry a chicken. You can do it the Nashville way, with buttermilk and cayenne pepper, Japanese-style, deep-marinated with soy sauce and dressed with Kewpie, or have it like the Indonesians do, with a healthy dose of sambal. But in Sydney right now, despite the best efforts of the likes of Hot Star and Belle's Hot Chicken, it's Korea's contribution that rules the roost.
A phenomenon since the late '70s, Korea's fried chicken is thought to have its roots in the American military presence in the Korean War. Keen locals tried their own variations on the recipe, adapting them to Korean tastes, leading to the versions of the dish we know today.
It's all about the once-battered, twice-fried method. The bird is seasoned with a helping of gochugaru - Korean chilli powder - and potato starch and, thanks to the double frying, the fat in the meat renders out and creates a light, crunchy crust that's full of flavour. Korean chefs also traditionally use smaller, younger chickens, making for a winning ratio of chicken to bone to batter. Fried to a crisp golden brown, the chicken comes out on the bone (preferably) accompanied by pickled daikon radish.
Some chefs choose to paint the chicken with several varieties of sauce, ranging from a barbecue gochujang chilli paste mix to the milder soy sauce and garlic combination.
Paired with a cold glass of beer, its appeal is hard to deny. The one-two punch of a refreshing lager and savoury fried chicken is a combination that Koreans have down to a fine art. Known as chimaek (a mishmash of the first syllables of chicken and beer in Korean), it's a popular staple in Korean culture - celebrated yearly in a festival in Daegu.
I've spent several weeks eating my way through Sydney's best-known purveyors of fried chicken. Here's my pick of the best.
Tucked away in Llankelly Place in Potts Point, Kim is a hidden gem for chicken fans. A playlist of Korean pop interspersed with a few indie tracks plays softly in the background in the cosy, dimly lit dining room. The kitchen isn't afraid to play around with the Korean classics, the chicken included. Kim's yangnyum tong dak, dubbed TKFC after chef Tae Kyu Lee, is served as a plentiful bowl of chopped winglets. The chicken is heavily painted with a mix of barbecue sauce and gochujang, and coated with nuts and shallots for extra crunch. If you're a chilli neophyte, be sure to order some of the restaurant's nine-grain rice and salted and roasted seaweed on the side. Kim, 7/24-30 Springfield Ave, Potts Point, (02) 9357 4578
A Korean-Chinese fusion landmark on Dixon Street, Arisun is one of the city's best known and most popular KFC joints. It's a haven for the after-work crowd, with its comfortable beer garden vibe, and the hustle and bustle of a crowded office canteen. The fried chicken here is served either bone-in or out with a choice of sweet and spicy glaze or the traditional soy sauce alongside pickled radish. The pick is sun's fried chicken with soy sauce, bone-in (naturally). The thick, sticky soy glaze clings well to the potato-starch coating, giving the chicken a nice chew with mild spice and keeps things extra juicy. Arisun, 35/1 Dixon St, Haymarket, (02) 9264 1588
THE SPARROW'S MILL
Sparrow's Mill is one of a growing handful of specialist fried chicken eateries in the CBD. It's a no-nonsense space with white concrete walls and white tiles, a TV set permanently switched to K-pop passing for ambience. The dining space is always crowded, with an army of uniformed staff weaving customers in and out of seats at a breakneck pace. The menu includes 12 different variations of their "incredible chicken", ranging from the heavily sauced spicy chilli chicken to the black sesame boneless drumsticks alongside a couple of essential Korean soups (the samgyetang is a must on cooler days). The snow-cheese fried chicken is a signature - dusted generously with powdered cheese, the chicken has a nice sweetness and it's certainly hearty. The Sparrow's Mill, 116-120 Liverpool St, Sydney, (02) 9264 7109
Moon Park's whole fried chicken
If you're looking for something a bit classier in your fried chicken repertoire, Moon Park is just the ticket. The name of the game here is Korean food with a winning contemporary twist. The first-floor dining space overlooking Redfern Park is simple by fancy-restaurant standards, but pretty flash compared with most of the other places we're looking at here. Fried chicken is offered here more as a side or a snack than the real deal, but the chefs have clearly still given it plenty of thought. Served with pickled radish, soy and syrup and a bit of black sesame over the crust, it may look modest, but its taste is anything but. It's a welcome departure from traditionally fried Korean fried chicken, the buttermilk and Malaysian shrimp brine mix giving a distinct salty flavour to the tender meat. Dip it into the soy and syrup sauce and a second helping becomes automatic. Moon Park, level 1, 34B Redfern St, Redfern, (02) 9690 0111
This relative newcomer to the Korean fried chicken scene has shaken things up with its menu of "damn good" chicken. The chook comes five ways - traditional, peri-peri, sticky, garlic or peanut butter - by the tin bucketful of half a dozen choice thigh fillets, with a modest garnish of finely cut lime, yellow pickled daikon and black sesame. The best is the traditional chicken. The flavour is quintessentially Korean, the chilli flakes added to the light crunchy skin a welcome touch; just add a squeeze of lime to complete the experience. The small restaurant has wooden floors, simple wooden furniture and a DIY vibe. It's a bit pricier than your other chicken places but you get what you pay for, and although it's the new kid on the block it already has a big following, so be sure to book. Chicken Institute, 61 Fitzroy St, Surry Hills, (02) 8095 0166
This newly renovated restaurant smack dab in Pitt Street's Koreatown was previously an underground haunt that hid some serious fried chicken magic. Now on street level, the magic continues. The restaurant has a homey, café-like vibe with exposed brick surfaces and bookshelves. The menu of barbecue, hotplates and soups, meanwhile, offers three varieties of fried chicken: the crisp standard, the hot, sweet and spicy glaze, and a salty spring onion number, with the option of bone-in or out, or half-and-half for all three. All come in a generous plateful of chicken pieces with chopped daikon alongside refillable banchan: kimchi, seasoned radish and pan-fried anchovies. If you like a bit of spice, ask for the sweet-and-spicy painted fried chicken. More spicy than sweet, it's heavily glazed with a Korean paste that's a pleasant complement to the tender meat. NaruOne, 375 Pitt St, Sydney, (02) 9261 2680
If authenticity is a must, Beschico is your place. This branch in Epping is the South Korean chain's only Australian outpost. In terms of atmosphere, it feels like the fast-food franchise that it is - no surprises there. The fried chicken here is served in either a mixture of cuts from all over the bird or just mini drumsticks, with its hot original sauce or a garlic-soy mix coming alongside daikon and complimentary sweet chilli and mustard. Unlike some of its competitors, Beschico's sweet-and-spicy glaze leans on the sugary side, the red glaze notably sweeter than your average hot sauce. Get it in a combo with other variations and chase it with your choice of Asahi or Hite sold in admirably large jugs. Beschico, 41 Beecroft Rd, Epping, (02) 9869 8188
All these venues are recommended, but if you twisted my arm and made me choose just one winner, I'd have to say my current favourite is Chicken Institute. Its traditional recipe nails everything that makes Korean fried chicken great. From its greaseless crunch and light batter to the tender juiciness of the meat, it illustrates why the Korean style of frying chicken has become so popular. The dash of mixed spice peppered on top complements the chicken with a flavour that doesn't threaten to overwhelm its taste.
For fans of painted sauces, Kim's TKFC is the clear winner. The barbecue-gochujang spicy mix makes for a glaze full of flavour. The gochujang is definitely still present, but the sweetness of the barbecue rounds it out.