I’m always on the lookout for a good plate of fried chicken.
I don’t have it as much as I want to because firstly, I’m being conscious about what I eat now, and secondly, there hasn’t been much “actually good” fried chicken around. When I say “actually good”, it must, at least for me, satisfy a few conditions, or namely, just the one: the meat cannot be greasy at all. It’s easy to dismiss yangnyeom chicken, or what is commonly known as Korean fried chicken. For one, there’s certainly a paranoia about fried dishes, evoking a scene of meat drenched in oil, so saturated, so fattening, so unhealthy, that the very notion of acting upon it is unthinkable. And in many aspects, there’s a certain validity to the paranoia. Culturally, many traditional frying methods, such as those for Ayam Penyet, Har Cheong Kai (prawn paste fried chicken) or KFC, are central to the delivery and taste, that any deliberation to alter it, regardless of goodwill, could be seen as gastronomically blasphemous, a.k.a., the taste just wouldn’t be the same. Socially, there just hasn’t been a push for healthier frying methods while the public service message has been one to advise avoidance as catechism, instead of true education. The result, is an ideological disbelief – a dismissal of what people perceive as a marketing slur, or complete oxymoron, as exemplified most recently by Broaster Chicken’s closure in Singapore.
Incumbent players like Popeye’s and KFC rely on a thick well-seasoned crust which encases the chicken inside, allowing the meat to tenderize while the skin crisps to a crackle. Theoretically, it’s a well-handled approach. In reality, the heat transference doesn’t always succeed. What might look like tender flesh is in fact, medium-rare, and the fat under the skin, which was supposed to cook away under the heat, remains. Korean-style fried chicken however, is barely seasoned, barely battered, and cooked in two stages – the breakup prevents the crust from getting too brown before the meat cooks through. If done properly, the fat between the flesh will be non-existent, while the skin stays thin and crispy – no more grease worries. This form of preparation shouldn’t sound alien, because it’s quintessentially Asian. Yet, it will, for convenience and economics, many Singapore eateries, particularly American fast food chains and their hawker counterparts, simply forsake this method of frying. Fried chicken will always be the more health risk averse form of cooking, but the Korean-style seeks to alleviate some of the drawbacks. It’s therefore easy to see why it has become such a popular alternative to American fast-food chains in cosmopolitan and health conscious New York City, and not in Singapore.
After accompanying my mom around Shenton Way to run some errands, I suggested we do lunch at Tras Street. My intention was to have lunch at Cafe Gavroche until we realized the place didn’t open for lunch, so we walked on, not very far from, and Kko Kko Nara Korean Restaurant appeared. Recognizing it from the papers as the place for Korean fried chicken, and having never tried Korean fried chicken besides 4 Fingers Bonchon Chicken (which I think is great, but a tad pricey and a small sitting area that’s packed except outside of meal times), we decided to have it.
It was a Monday afternoon, and located slightly off the main grid from the office crowds, Kko Kko Nara wasn’t what anyone might describe as being “crowded”, but it had a healthy patronage. The restaurant’s dimly lit interior, almost dingy in fact, is reminiscent of a Northeast Asian-style izakaya – homely, convivial conduits for an after work get-together, or a relaxed respite from the soaring heat outside. Towering seat backs ensures that there are no prying eyes or unwanted eavesdropping, except for the table directly across. As the food scene in Singapore develops, with the frontiers of gastronomy being pushed further into sophistication and conscious refinement, and as palates are developed and tastes are cultivated, we’re seeing a familiar phenomenon already gripping the world’s epicurean capitals being transplanted here – the lunch menu. Few people have the privilege of time to go through the pleasantries of going to a restaurant, place an order, and wait for the food to be served, much less sitting through a multiple course meal. We want our food good, but we want it fast. The solution? A consolidated, concise menu to keep the wait times low, and the customer turnover moving. Like a growing list of places, Kko Kko Nara too, sports a lunch menu. The reduced list eschews the all-popular but time consuming Korean barbecue meats for a selection of familiar Korean favorites like the Kimchi Soup and Bulgogi with Rice, and of course, fried chicken.
We were started with a pickled daikon, which is first served to open up our palate. Some often stay away from some contraptions, and it’s often because they don’t understand its purpose. Think of it as making your taste-buds more sensitive to the nuances and flavors of whatever you will have for your meal. It’s not there to be delicious – it’s an extra bonus if you think it is – but you’ll be loving the food a little better if you sampled some. It is only after, that the side dishes are served – six of them to be exact. I wasn’t awed by the quantity nor the quality of it all, but it did its job. Then, the main dishes.
You can always discern the type of kimchi, whether it be prepared in-house or prepackaged, when you order kimchi soup. Any self respecting Korean establishment, even those in Singapore, tends to make their own. It’s not entirely an ideal situation. Try as they might, but Singapore isn’t Korea, and that’s a way of life, but it is still better than the other alternative of using prepackaged kimchi. Contrary to what the packaging might say, or what language it might be in, I have on good authority that it’s most likely made in China. Not that it’s a bad thing, but the quality of the year-to-year harvest, which as of now, just isn’t as consistent as that of a more developed country with more homogeneous practices, means that there’s always a chance that the cabbage might not be in its freshest state when it is pickled. Not that a typical Korean household in Korea would mind, it seems, as a National Geographic Channel documentary I watched reveals – the need for kimchi is greater than the quality of it. But, the demands of the F&B industry are greater and stricter. However, kimchi produced in-house – often not pickled long enough – is often served barely mature, and the flavors, muted and discrete. Hence, the kimchi soup served at Korean-manned restaurants lacks the sour tangyness that some might have come to associate Kimchi Jjigae with. To combat that reduced aspect, some, like Kko Kko Nara, add seafood into the broth, giving it a brining depth to it, which in my opinion, compliments the kimchi stew, perfectly. The generosity of tofu makes this one of the best I’ve had, so far.
With my Mom unwilling to show any interest in the namesake dish of the restaurant, I had to scale down my order, from a Small Chicken Combo set which is a variety of chicken coming in the signature flavors, original, soy garlic sauce, sweet and spicy, and hot and spicy, to a half chicken of sweet and spicy. The sweet and spicy sauce was exactly just that, but even underneath the sauce, the chicken still hadn’t lost its crunch, literally. It was amazing.