WHEN Joe McPherson moved to Seoul in 2002, he thought he was leaving fried chicken behind. “I grew up watching Popeyes training videos,” Mr. McPherson said. His father managed a Popeyes franchise near Atlanta and fried chicken was a constant presence in his life.
“Living in the South, you think you know fried chicken,” he said. But in Seoul, he said, “there is a mom-and-pop chicken place literally on every corner.” Many Asian cooking traditions include deep-fried chicken, but the popular cult of crunchy, spicy, perfectly nongreasy chicken — the apotheosis of the Korean style — is a recent development.
In the New York area, Korean-style fried chicken places have just begun to appear, reproducing the delicate crust, addictive seasoning and moist meat Koreans are devoted to.
“Food in Korea is very trendy,” said Myung J. Chung, an owner of the Manhattan franchise of Bon Chon Chicken, a karaoke-and-chicken lounge that opened in December. “Other trends last two or three years, but fried chicken has lasted for 20 years,” he said.
Platters of fried chicken are a hugely popular bar food in South Korea — like chicken wings in the United States, they are downed with beer or soju, after work or after dinner, rarely eaten as a meal.
“Some places have a very thin, crisp skin; some places have more garlicky, sticky sauces; some advertise that they are healthy because they fry in 100 percent olive oil,” said Mr. McPherson, an English teacher, who writes a food blog called zenkimchi.com/FoodJournal.
“Suddenly there will be a long line outside one chicken place, for no apparent reason, and then the next week, it’s somewhere else.”
Even Korea’s corner bars and fast-food chicken chains are preoccupied with the quality, freshness and integrity of their product.
With Korean-style chicken outlets opening recently in New York, New Jersey and California, fried chicken has begun to complete its round-trip flight from the States to Seoul.
“I really think we make it better than the original,” said Young Jin, who opened a friendly little chicken joint called Unidentified Flying Chickens in Jackson Heights last month. “We use fresh, not frozen, chicken, always fried to order, no trans fats, no heat lamps.”
In Korea, chickens are much smaller, so the whole chicken is fried and served, hacked up into bite-size pieces. But the large breasts and thighs of American chickens are a challenge to cook evenly.