Taste buds, beware: The fried chicken in Taiwan's night markets isn't as mild as the Colonel's
Author CHANEY KWAK
FRIED CHICKEN MIGHT BE, literally, the hottest thing in Taiwan right now. In a place with no shortage of fresh, piping-hot street food, deep-fried chicken has lately reigned as the king of xiao chi, the Taiwanese incarnation of tapas or finger food that is particularly popular in night markets. But where fried chicken in the American South tends toward the salty and crisp, this version has scant breading and a kick like a mule.
To make it, stall owners coat wide, thin fillets of white meat in sweet-potato starch and the five famous spices: fennel, clove, cinnamon, star anise and mouth-numbing Sichuan pepper. After a quick dip in the fryer, the chicken emerges cereal-crunchy on the outside and succulent inside. Every bite is sweet, salty, bitter, sour and spicy, covering each of the five traditional Chinese tastes.
Waiting in a long line for chicken at Taipei’s Shilin night market, Steven Huang, a student from Kaohsiung, attributes the dish’s popularity to the odd-hour cravings of college kids. "You can find fried chicken at any time, anywhere in Taiwan," he says. But is it popular because it’s everywhere, or is it everywhere because it’s popular? That, says Huang, is a "chicken or the egg" question.
When it comes to the world’s supply of strikingly textured fruit, Southeast Asia got the lion’s share (for instance, compare the serrated dragon fruit and hirsute rambutan with, say, an apple). In Taiwan, the produce of note is the pine cone-shaped "Buddha head" fruit, a pawpaw relative with sweet, creamy, custardlike flesh.
Also known as sugar apple or sweetsop, Buddha head fruit is a popular offering on shrines and altars, especially during religious festivals like Chinese New Year. A major cash crop for Taiwan, it can be found ripe, peeled and seeded in the island’s famous night markets, while most grocery stands proffer the unripe version, which is dull green and the size of a grapefruit. Once the Buddha head fruit reaches peak condition, however, you’ll want to eat it quickly. As its namesake might say, the window in which a sugar apple is at its best is fleeting. —JOSHUA SAMUEL BROWN