Korea's fried chicken takes flight and conquers the world

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Korea's fried chicken takes flight and conquers the world

People dine at a BB.Q Chicken restaurant in Manhattan. [GENESIS BBQ]

People dine at a BB.Q Chicken restaurant in Manhattan. [GENESIS BBQ]

Move over kimchi and bulgogi. The new taste of Korea is fried chicken.
There's nothing particularly Korean about fried chicken, to be sure. But Korean-style fried chicken has managed to become a thing, to use Millennial-speak, and a big thing. Franchise chicken brands in Korea are aggressively expanding around the world, with a focus on the American and the Middle East markets.

Korean dramas like “Squid Game” and “Crash Landing on You,” in which characters almost always devour fried chicken, have spread the word about Korean fried chicken. Boosters say Korea's fried chicken is crispier than other types and has a greater variety of flavors, such as honey garlic and soy sauce.
According to a survey of people who tried Korean food and live abroad last year by the Korean Food Promotion Institute and the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, fried chicken was the most frequently eaten Korean food -- picked by 30 percent of the respondents -- followed by Kimchi (27.7%) and Bibimbap (27.2 percent). 

Overseas sales of Kyochon F&B, which runs Korea's largest chicken chain, reached 4.1 billion won ($3.42 million) in the third quarter of last year, up 41.4 percent over the year before. It runs 1,338 stores in Korea and 65 in six foreign countries. 
Secrets to the taste

Korean fried chicken fans insist that it's better than other types, something to do with its crispiness and flavor.

It is “less greasy than [in the] United States, and has a really nice crunch,” said Toby Tamaye, a marketer based in Hawaii. “The chicken wings seem to have more meat than U.S. wings too. Most of all it is the cool chicken to eat at this time, since we’ve been eating [at] chains like Kentucky Fried and Popeyes for [all] our lives.” 

Korean fried chicken “was better than any other fried chicken I had ever tasted,” said Jasmin, a blogger based in Los Angeles. “The outer layer is thin and crispy when you first bite in. Many American versions tend to have a thick outer crust that retains oil and feels heavy.”

The fans aren't imagining a special crispiness and flavor.  
Kyochon Chicken says it double fries its chicken.

“We first fry the chicken with flour-based watery dough and then fry the chicken once again to keep the skin thin and crispy,” said Choi Woo-chang, a spokesperson for Kyochon F&B. “We double fry the chicken to reduce moisture and to raise its crispiness.”

BB.Q Chicken's secret is double curing. Curing is the addition to meats of some combination of salt, sugar and nitrate for the purposes of preservation, flavor and color.  
BB.Q Chicken, which runs around 500 stores in 57 countries, said it cures chicken pieces two times before frying them once. For curing, the company said it uses a special mixture that consists ingredients such as flour and curry.  
“For the first curing process, we cover the chicken with a powder that has been mixed with water,” said Lee Chang-hwan, a spokesperson for Genesis BBQ. “We then add another layer of powder before frying it for the crispier coating.”
BB.Q Chicken ranked fifth in a survey of the 25 fastest-growing restaurant chains in America last year. The survey was conducted by Nation’s Restaurant News, an industry publication.  
“Korean fried chicken is more focused on making the outer layer crispy compared to Japan’s karaage or China’s kkanpunggi, which are largely focused on the meat itself,” said food critic Park Jung-bae. “A higher level of carbohydrates like flour and starch in the batter makes Korean chicken taste sweeter, like a snack.”

A platter sold by Kyochon Chicken in Dubai [KYOCHON F&B]

A platter sold by Kyochon Chicken in Dubai [KYOCHON F&B]


When branching out abroad, knowing the local market is the key, and that was no exception for chicken franchises.

“In Korea, we sell a whole chicken, but in countries like the United States, we sell chicken in pieces because locals are used to eating it as a finger food,” said Lee. “They find the heavily sauced fried chicken to be unique because Americans are used to eating fried chicken with a dipping sauce.”  
The Middle Eastern market had its own peculiarities.  
“We offer chicken in pieces instead of a whole chicken in the Middle East because locals usually eat fried chicken with rice,” said Choi. “Fried chicken is usually served in a sampler platter with hamburgers and salads because customers in the Middle East mostly come with their families.”

In the Middle East, fried chicken covered with a soy sauce-based sauce is the most popular choice, according to Kyochon F&B. Chicken with a honey-based sauce is the most popular in the United States, China and Indonesia, while customers from Southeast Asia like a spicy sauce made with red pepper.  
Korea's chicken franchises, who deliver a lot of their orders at home, benefited from skyrocketed demand for food deliveries abroad during the pandemic.

“In the United States, food delivery was largely confined to pizza – there didn’t seem to be the idea in the market of delivering chicken,” said Lee of Genesis BBQ. “Chicken delivery is complicated because we have to make sure the chicken stays hot and the heat from the chicken does not make the packaging soggy. But we already knew how to deliver chicken properly because of our experience in Korea.”

Lee explained that BB.Q Chicken uses packaging made of corrugated cardboard.  
Others chains swiftly responded to demand for food delivery during the pandemic by teaming up with local delivery companies. Goobne Chicken, known for oven-baked chicken, partnered with Deliveroo in Hong Kong.  

The company runs 37 branches in nine countries including Australia, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Goobne Chicken offers other types of Korean food at its overseas restaurants like japchae (stir-fried noodles) gyeranmari (fried and rolled eggs with finely chopped vegetables) and tteokbokki )rice cakes sauced with jjajang black bean sauce) at its stores in Hong Kong.
People wait in line to enter a Kyochon Chicken branch in Dubai. [KYOCHON F&B]

People wait in line to enter a Kyochon Chicken branch in Dubai. [KYOCHON F&B]

Cultural boom
Some say that the popularity of Korean fried chicken owes less to its taste and more to the country associated with it.  
“Taste is not wholly felt through one’s tongue but is felt psychologically too,” said Lee Gyu-min, a professor in the Department of Foodservice Management at Kyunghee University. “The rise of Korea’s national brand played an essential role in the global popularity of Korean fried chicken.”

BB.Q Chicken first went abroad in 2003 -- to Shanghai, China's business capital -- but it was only in 2020 that its overseas business started reporting profits. That was the same year that Kyochon Chicken started making profit from overseas business after it made its first foreign entry to the United States in 2007. 

As the companies got to know overseas markets, people overseas were noticing Korea more than ever before thanks to 
pop phenomenon BTS and movies and television shows. Director Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” won four awards at the Academy Awards in 2020 and veteran actor Yoon Yuh-jung became the first Korean to win an acting Oscar last year. Netflix's “Squid Game,” released in 2021, was a smash.
“The timing of Korea’s cultural achievements along with its development of its food service industry coincided.” Lee added, 

"Since people started paying more attention to Korean music and dramas, they naturally grew interested in Korean food," said food critic Park. "Since chicken is a food that is widely available worldwide, it was easier for Korean chicken businesses to penetrate the foreign markets.

BY JIN MIN-JI [jin.minji@joongang.co.kr]
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