Walking through the Shilin night market in Taipei, Taiwan, I felt like I was entering another world. Bright neon signs hung from buildings and countless food stores and carts lined the streets; loud, fast-paced pop music blasted in the background; and crowds of people, balancing numerous snack items in their hands, wandered, ate, and laughed all at the same time.
In 2013, I traveled to Taipei for the filming of my food program, CiCi’s Food Paradise. I was thrilled to film at one of the city’s most famous night markets.
Taiwan’s night markets are essentially street markets where vendors gather and sell everything from clothing and consumer goods to food and drinks. They stay open from late afternoon to late into the night, hence their name.
Among the dizzying variety, what is the hottest snack to get at the markets? According to an online survey by travel website ezTravel, the vote of the Taiwanese people goes to popcorn chicken with basil.
Known as “yan su ji” or “xian su ji” in Chinese, which literally translates to “salt crispy chicken” or “salty crispy chicken,” the Taiwanese snack is made from bite-sized boneless chicken deep-fried until golden brown, sprinkled with fried basil leaves, and tossed with a special seasoning. True to its name, the snack is salty and crispy, with a hint of spice and floral fragrance from the basil.
Due to its popularity, now you can find Taiwanese popcorn chicken in the United States as well, in anywhere from fancy Taiwanese restaurants to neighborhood milk tea shops.
That’s where I had my first taste of the snack, when I was a freshman in high school. My Taiwanese friend bought a bag in a local milk tea shop and asked me if I wanted to have a bite. I popped a piece into my mouth—and instantly realized that it was a fried chicken game changer. I have been in love with it ever since.
To make Taiwanese popcorn chicken at home, we marinate morsels of chicken, coat them in sweet potato flour, and double fry them until light and crispy. The double frying method makes the chicken crispier and less oily than regular fried chicken. We fry the basil before the second round, so that it infuses the oil and the chicken also takes on its aroma.
The crispy morsels are then tossed in a trio of simple but magical seasonings, found in every Chinese household: five-spice powder, white pepper, and salt. Those fragrant basil leaves, fried until crackling and translucent, add the finishing touch.
Taiwanese Popcorn Chicken With Basil
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 15 minutes
For the marinade:
- 1/2 teaspoon white pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon five-spice powder
- Pinch of salt
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon rice wine
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 teaspoon minced ginger
- 1 egg
- 2 chicken thighs (1 pound total), boneless, cut into bite-size pieces
For the seasoning:
- 1 teaspoon five-spice powder
- 1 teaspoon white pepper
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup thick sweet potato starch
- 2 cups vegetable oil
- 1 cup fresh basil leaves
In a bowl, mix together all the ingredients for the marinade. Add the chicken pieces and let them marinate for 15 minutes.
Put the sweet potato starch in a large bowl. Dip the chicken pieces in the starch to coat. Set the coated pieces aside and let them sit for about 5 minutes.
Dip the chicken pieces in the sweet potato starch again, for a second coat. Wait for another 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, mix together all the ingredients for the seasoning and set aside.
In a pan, heat 2 cups of oil (about 1 inch deep) to 350 degrees F. You can also test the oil temperature with your chopsticks or tongs: Dip them into the oil, and if you see lots of bubbles form around them right away, then you know the oil is at the right temperature. Add the chicken pieces and fry until golden brown, about 3 minutes. Remove and set aside.
Use a skimmer to remove any crumbs from the oil.
Again, heat the oil to 350 degrees F. Very carefully add the basil—the oil will splatter—and cook for 30 seconds. Remove the basil leaves with a skimmer and drain.
Heat the oil to about 375 degrees F. Return the chicken pieces to the oil and cook until crispy, about 1 minute. Remove them and drain.
Transfer the chicken pieces to a large bowl. Add the seasoning and toss together.
Serve on a plate, sprinkled with the fried basil leaves.