Korean Fried Chicken is the other KFC – and if you haven’t tried it yet here in Glenview, IL you’re missing out! What makes Korean fried chicken so delicious? You might be surprised to learn that South Korea has had a 70+ year long (and running!) love affair with fried chicken – and over those many decades, Koreans have channeled their obsession with golden fried chicken into creating inventive and innovative flavor profiles, sauces, and methods to elevate their fried chicken to another level.
How Were Koreans Introduced to Fried Chicken?
Where did Korean fried chicken come from, and why and how is it so good? Famed food critic Alton Brown summed it up succinctly in an episode of Iron Chef: Quest for an Iron Legend, when he stated that Korean Fried Chicken was some of the best in the world “because it was taught to Korean cooks by African American GIs after the World War.”
And it’s true! – Mostly. Tracking down the precise origins of a culture’s cuisines can be tricky, but most food historians agree that African American soldiers stationed in Korea during the Korean War (June 25, 1950 - July 27, 1953 – which was indeed after WWII) most likely taught the Korean soldiers they shared barracks with how to make fried chicken. The popular origin story goes: black American soldiers stationed in Korea wanted to celebrate American Thanksgiving, cooked up fried chicken since turkey wasn’t available, and shared it with their Korean compatriots. Prior to this, chicken in Korea was commonly served boiled in stews (like samgyetang). Eating chicken that had been deep fried was an entirely new experience for the Korean soldiers. Described by a Korean tank driver decades later as “a taste of heaven,” fried chicken was an instant hit!
That’s not to say that Koreans had never cooked chicken by frying it before the Korean War, but frying was a very uncommon method of preparing chicken at the time. Perhaps the only significant Korean fried chicken dish of note is a dish called pogye (포계). Pogye first appeared in a Korean cookbook written by a royal doctor during King Sejong’s reign (1419-1450), and the dish is believed to have been in frequent rotation at the royal table. Which is to say, this particular Korean fried chicken dish may have been in existence for quite awhile on the peninsula, but it was likely only known and enjoyed at the tables of Korean royals and aristocrats, particularly since meat was quite scarce and expensive in Korea for a very long time. Pogye is prepared by stir frying chicken and then continuing to cook it uncovered with flour and seasoning liquids until the liquid has reduced and the skin is crisp – markedly different from the battered, golden-deep-fried Korean Fried Chicken that we know and love today.
The Rise of Korean Fried Chicken
Fried chicken was a new foodie phenomenon from the moment it was first introduced to Korean soldiers in the early 1950s, but due to the country’s severe economic struggles post-war, it took some time for fried chicken to become ubiquitous throughout the country. The entire country was left impoverished after the Korean War, and essential ingredients for fried chicken – like chicken and cooking oil – were extraordinarily scarce and beyond most people’s financial reach. In fact, cooking oil was not even commercially available until the 1970s!
Though cooking oil wasn’t commercially available yet, electric ovens were – and during the 1960s, whole rotisserie chicken became a coveted luxury dish in Korea. Chicken and meat was still quite expensive and most people only enjoyed it on special occasions at this time. Typically sold in yellow bags, working fathers would purchase “yellow bag chicken” to bring home to their families as a special treat on paydays, birthdays, and other celebratory days. Because the rotisserie chicken was cooked and sold whole, it was referred to as “tongdak” (통닭), meaning “whole chicken” – a phrase that soon carried over to Korean fried chicken when a few key developments occurred that spurred KFC’s popularity and availability: the commercialization of cheap cooking oil in 1971, and a period of economic boom and incredibly rapid industrialization (known as “The Miracle on the Han River”) – which gave Korean people more disposable income, and made chicken cheaper and far more affordable for far more people.
Fried chicken soon took off, and fried chicken restaurants began popping up and taking over the rotisserie chicken market. The first Korean fried chicken franchise, Lim’s Chicken, opened in 1977. In 1984, the original KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken) saw the opportunity to capitalize on Korea’s love for fried chicken and opened their first stores in South Korea. Around this time, fried chicken became to be considered as “drinking food,” and was regularly paired with beer – known as chimaek (치맥) – “chi” for “chicken,” and “maek” for “maekju” (beer).
The early 1990s saw continued rapid growth and popularity of fried chicken – so much so that restaurants began developing new flavors and techniques in order to compete and market their unique offerings. Uniquely Korean sauces and flavor profiles emerged – like soy and garlic based sauces, and the to-this-day incredibly popular and delicious yangnyeom chicken (양념치킨), glazed in an addictive, sticky-sweet-spicy gochujang based sauce.
The Asian financial crisis of 1997 surprisingly resulted in another significant boom in fried chicken’s popularity, when many laid off workers – who were now unemployed and uncertain about their future, but had at least received a severance payment – pivoted to opening restaurants and food stands, including fried chicken joints. Korea’s restaurant industry soon became very dynamic and competitive, aided by the influx of these small businesses as well as Korea’s very efficient and sophisticated food delivery culture. Fried chicken shot up even more in Korean peoples’ esteem as not just a popular drinking snack but as a beloved comfort food and meal – and fried chicken became truly ingrained and ubiquitous in Korean food culture.
The early 2000s saw even more innovation and creativity in Korean fried chicken, such as the introduction of boneless chicken, more interesting and varied chimaek pairings, the invention of green onion chicken (padak, 파닭), and the development of unique flavors like cheese and honey butter chicken. In 2016, one out of every four franchises in South Korea were fried chicken restaurants. Today, there are more fried chicken restaurants in South Korea than there are McDonald’s locations across the globe!
Our KFC in Glenview, IL
Korean fried chicken is here to stay, and here at CM Chicken in Glenview, IL, we are so proud to carry on the legacy of the “other” KFC! We hold true to the original roots of our KFC, while striving to innovate and put our own soul into our Seoul-fried chicken.
Enjoy our KFC your way – customize with your choice of our mouthwatering sauces and toppings, and choose wings, tenders, half or whole chicken! View our entire menu here! Besides our Korean Fried Chicken, we also serve fantastic complementary appetizers like Fried Dumplings, Calamari, Jumbo Shrimp and more.
One taste and you will understand Korea’s deep and enduring love affair with Korean fried chicken!
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