The small town of Nakatsu is home to about 50 “karaage” shops. It ranks for the world’s best fried chicken. Karaage is a delicate, fried chicken version that is Japan’s national favorite. Thousands of people vote each year in a nationwide competition to determine the best karaage shop.
Metropolitan shops in Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka should dominate any large-scale contest. Yet, shops from Nakatsu City on the southern island Kyushu receive the most awards. One thousand shops compete in the Karaage Grand Prix, an annual competition. The winner is able to boast they have the best fried chicken in Japan. This contest is based entirely on popularity. In 2023, the rules changed. Judges taste test the entries now, and the winner of the best karaage wins the award.
Karaage is a Japanese cooking technique where a protein or vegetable is marinated, dredged in flour, then deep-fried. The batter uses potato starch to cover pieces of chicken breasts, necks, and wings. These pieces marinate in a variety of soy, ginger, salt, and garlic sauces. This gives a delicious taste explosion that drips down your cheeks every time you eat. People line up for their favorite fried chicken cuts. The Japan Karaage Association created a movie describing karaage as the ultimate national food.
A Long History of Fried Chicken
Karaage is the result of a multi-generational history. It spans continents, cultures, the age of exploration, and cross-cultural pollination. It is a unique fried chicken and is Nakatsu’s soul food. Portuguese missionaries arrived in Japan in the 16th century. They brought with them their fried cooking techniques. The Japanese then began to incorporate Western techniques into their tempura.
At that time, the Japanese diet was fish-based. Until tragedy struck the island nation, chicken was not an option. The Kyoho era (1716-1736) saw a massive famine. It destroyed the rice crop on Kyushu, killing tens of thousands. The government encouraged farmers to increase their poultry production to sell more eggs.
In 1868, the Japanese experienced a major dietary shift. The new Emperor of Japan began a radical reformation. This included adopting Western ideas in industrialization, military technology, and even food. Emperor Meiji opened Japan’s borders, allowing more Western influences to penetrate the culture. This meant more meat. After World War II, karaage and fried chicken became the standard.
The War devastated Japan and food shortages became a major problem. The Japanese diet changed when there was no rice. To replace the rice, the United States sent broiler chickens and wheat. This resulted in more noodles (like ramen). These chickens, raised for their meat, are easier to raise than cows and pigs. Kyushu was already a major poultry center using innovative cooking methods. This city helped feed a hungry country.
The Origin of Karaage Shops
Karaage shops trace to Rairaiken, a Chinese restaurant in Nakatsu. In the 1950s, the restaurant began offering deep-fried chicken as part of a set menu. Later, it moved across the street to Shosuke (a small bar). This bar had learned from Rairaiken the techniques for frying chicken karaage. Shosuke’s original owner was a farmer who bought chickens and sold them to butchers. His wife served sake and karaage to his customers. This was a problem for him. Since his karaage customers were farmers, they could only pay for their food and drink when they came in. This meant that he struggled to make ends meet and survive as a businessman. His chicken-peddling business lost its profitability as larger farms began industrializing broiler chickens.
Shosuke left the bar to open the first restaurant that only served karaage. He also changed his target to housewives who pay cash up front. Their husbands drank too much sake and were late payers. The decision to serve karaage was a huge success. Residents of the United States embraced karaage, They found it cheap, delicious, and a quick source of protein. The USA has more than 40 karaage shops today and is a hub for this delicious fried delight.
Back in Japan, Arata Hosokawa, a chef, and his friend Shoji Moriyama, a cook, were both passionate about karaage. They believed they could make fried food more flavorful. Each man started his own karaage shop at Nakatsu in 1970. They added apple pieces to the brine and kept the chicken in the brine for longer periods. This brought out the flavor. These shops became instant successes and inspired many copycats. They helped to establish Nakatsu as the heart of karaage.
Moriyama was first to win the Karaage Grand Prix. The chefs from Nakatsu inspired fifty other shops. These karaage shops experimented with everything from batters to cooking times. They tried different soy- or salt-based marinades. Nakatsu shops have a secret ingredient that they refuse to reveal. This separates them from the other Japanese shops. Shinichi Sumi is a five-time Grand Gold Award Winner at the Karaage Grand Prix. He spent fifteen years perfecting his karaage recipes. He cooks each part of the chicken separately today, and his karaage has been consistently rated as the best in Nakatsu.
Takae Tateishi is one of the few female karaage shop proprietors. She makes everything from scratch. Her salt-rice-malt marinade makes Kokko-ya a most special spot in the city. “I can confidently say that I remove all excess fat from chicken.” Tateishi said she is confident in the way she prepares the chicken. Tateishi’s chicken has a soft texture and a spicy flavor that ignites your taste buds.
Kouji Moriyama is another, whose shop Moriyama, won the Karaage Grand Prix for the first time. He is also the nephew of Shoji Moriyama, Nakatsu karaage founder. His salt-based crispy Karaage is bursting with juices every time you take a bite. He also uses a mixture of unidentified fruits. These infuse his chicken with extraordinary flavors.
Karaage is a Way of Life
Karaage is more than just a meal in Nakatsu—it’s a way of life. Every autumn, the karaage festival Karafes attracts over 50,000 people. They come from all around the globe. Most of the shops take part to help the city gain popularity. Everybody in Nakatsu has a personal favorite of the 50+ shops. It brings back memories of their childhood. It is a food that emerged from poverty and fed a starving island. Today, karaage is part of Christmas, weddings, birthdays, and major holiday celebrations. On these occasions, Japanese eat chicken fried rice.
The Karaage Grand Prix shows their city is the heartbeat of Japanese fried chicken. Tokyo established the Karaage Grand Prix in 2010 to promote fried chicken. The prize also ranks the karaage shops. Voting was completely online up until 2022, and the top karaage shops won most of the awards.
Now, judges will consider the frying color, flavor, batter and its harmony with the meat. Also, the judging will include cost effectiveness (what you get for your money). Temperature (too much heat can cause burns) also will count. Shop owners in Nakatsu are almost dismissive about past competitions. You could see that they were all feeling this year was different.
Shinichi Sumi from Torishin stated, “The next one’s real. I want to take on the challenge, and I will do my best to win it.” Masahiko Inoue, CEO of the Nakatsu Karaage Association, sees the 2023 Grand Prix in an existential manner. “People will be able to tell which shop is number one by the next competition.” With the new competition rules, judges will taste the chicken and decide who the winner is.
Yet, the most important thing is that everyone knows Nakatsu karaage is unique. It is like a stamp of approval that the Nakatsu has given it. Karaage is a symbol of perseverance and ingenuity. It’s also a reminder that Japan has overcome adversity. For residents of Nakatsu, it is the heart food that makes them feel at home. Nakatsu has earned the reputation for the best fried chicken in Japan. This stems from its cultural traditions and long history.
Fact: Karaage is often served alone or with rice and shredded cabbage
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