Korean Fried Chicken with two side dishes and a pint of beer. Photo by KOREA.NET
Crunchy, crispy, and covered in a spicy, sweet sauce or plain, Korean fried chicken is best washed down with some cold, refreshing beer (this pairing of beer and chicken is called Chimaek in Korean). Loved by many fans of different countries, Korean Fried Chicken, the other KFC, has always been a popular dish that transcends its origins in Korea.
Like many other dishes such as spam musubi and ramen, war played a role in the creation of Korean fried chicken. The concept of fried chicken was introduced when the American military was stationed in Korea during the Korean War in the late 1940s and the early 50s. US troops stationed in Korea only had chicken instead of turkey to celebrate with on Thanksgiving Day. They decided to fry it and share this dish with their fellow Korean comrades who never had fried chicken before. The Koreans who tried the dish took a liking to it immediately. Koreans traditionally ate chicken steamed or boiled and usually in soups or broths, so fried chicken was a new concept to them.
Samgye-tang, or gingseng chicken soup, is a traditional Korean dish with boiled chicken. Koreans were used to eating their chickens steamed or in soups/broths prior to the introduction of fried chicken. Photo on Public Domain.
While fried chicken was introduced then, it did not become popular until decades later. Since the Korean war had left South Korea impoverished, many Koreans rarely had the chance to eat chicken during this time. In fact, South Korean remained one of the poorest countries in the world for over a decade. In 1960, its GDP per capita was $79; for comparison, the US at this time was a little over $3,000. It was also so poor that it received aid from many African nations. During the 1960s, on payday, salarymen brought home rotisserie chicken in a yellow bag to share with their families; known as “yellow-bag chicken”, this chicken was so expensive that it was a luxury to be enjoyed occasionally.
The popularity of fried chicken was imminent when two factors came into play in the early 1970s: cheap, readily accessible cooking oil and cheaper chicken. One key element to all of this was that Korea’s economy had been rapidly growing since the 1960s. In 1960, General Park Chung-hee’s coup brought an end to the government of the Second Republic and his election ushered in the Third Republic. Park focused on bringing South Korea into the developed world by introducing many economic policies that encouraged rapid economic growth and industrialization. As such, workers saw their wages increase; this led to an increase in domestic consumption of goods. Prior to the Third Republic, Korea was primarily an agricultural economy. Today, Korea is the 12th largest economy in the world.
A order of korean fried chicken – half yangnyeom (sweet and spicy seasoning), half huraideu (basic – no seasoning). Photo on Public Domain.
Starting with the 60s and 70s, western-style rotisserie chicken restaurants became more and more popular in urban areas of Korea. The first Korean fried chicken franchise, Lim’s Chicken, was created in South Korea in 1977 and was influenced by fried chicken from the US. Yu Seok-Ho, the founder of Lim’s Chicken, went to the US in 1975 and saw how Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) sold its chicken in pieces; inspired, Seok-Ho returned to Korea and experimented with chicken to create a six-piece set. Lim’s Chicken made fried chicken mainstream and it became the first fried chicken franchise in Korea. Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) entered the South Korean Market in 1984; many Koreans were excited about the American fried chicken that they heard of from the Korean War and were willing to fork out the high prices that KFC charged.
Due to the popularity of Korean fried chicken, many entrepreneurs opened up their own restaurants. With increasing competition, some experimented with different ingredients and sauces to make their Korean fried chicken unique. Yang Hee-Kwong, who ran Pelicana Chicken at Daejon, marinated his chicken in a sweet and spicy sauce to make it easier for his customers to chew on the firm, crisp layers of the fried chicken. Known as Yangnyeom-chikin, it became extremely popular and is one of the more popular ways to enjoy Korean fried chicken.
Fried chicken in Korea became extremely popular by the 90s when every household living in apartment complexes in Korea could get it delivered. In the 60s and 70s, fried chicken was a dish that was purchased for special occasions; today, it is extremely commonplace food that anyone could afford to eat for a meal or snack.
Fried chicken wings (half spicy and half with soy-garlic sauce) from Bonchon in San Gabriel, California. Photo by Author.
Today, Korean fried chicken has become a popular dish in many countries and has been further popularized by Korean dramas. Eaten as a meal, appetizer, or a snack, it is usually served with pickled radish, beer, and soju. Unlike its American counterpart, Korean fried chicken is fried twice to get it to be crunchier. Frying the chicken twice also makes it less greasy. Restaurants also use younger chickens and this results in more tender meat.
According to a report in Korea Economy Daily, as of February 2019, there were approximately 87,000 fried chicken restaurants in South Korea; to put this into perspective, McDonald’s has about 38,000 restaurants worldwide. Many of the Korean fried chicken restaurant chains have opened up international stores in other countries such as the United States and Canada. For example, Bonchon, a fried chicken franchise from South Korea, has over 300 locations, with 94 in the US and a few in Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, and Myanmar. It is amazing how humble the Korean fried chicken origins were and how Korean fried chicken franchises have proliferated the world today.