- Karaage, Japan’s version of the fried chicken dish
- Toriro and the “Hokkaido zangi”
- How can you enjoy their all-you-can-eat karaage?
Karaage, Japan’s version of the fried chicken dish
For a long time I just assumed that karaage (から揚げ) was simply the way fried chicken was called in Japan, like “poteto furai” is how french fries are called (basically “potato fry”). The second part “age” means deep-fried so the assumption is fairly logical. However, when you start wondering about the meaning of the first part “kara” – which doesn’t mean chicken at all – you realize that things aren’t so simple. On some menus, the first part is written in Chinese characters, and there are two accepted versions with entirely different meanings: the first one translates as “China” (唐揚げ), the second one is the character for “empty” (空揚げ). Does the name refer to the origin of the dish or preparation method (“Chinese fry”?). Or does it refer to the fact that the chicken isn’t coated with bread crumbs (like tonkatsu) or some kind of batter mixture (like tempura) and thus is “empty fried” (although it is covered in starch or flour)? No one knows for sure and it remains slightly controversial to this day. That’s probably the reason many places, including Toriro, prefer the first version with only one Chinese character (and not to make it easier for non-native Japanese like me to read the menu).
So if karaage is not the Japanese word for fried chicken, but at the same time the main ingredient is chicken and it’s deep-fried, what is it exactly? The main difference is the preparation method. Although there are many ways to prepare fried chicken around the world, usually the flavour is in the coating, made with flour. Recipes will vary, but in Japanese cuisine, the chicken pieces are first marinated for some time in a mixture of soy sauce, ginger, garlic, and cooking sake. They are then covered in potato starch (wheat or rice flour can also be used), before finally deep-fried in oil. Another difference is that karaage uses the tender and moist thigh meat (“momo”) whereas fried chicken also uses other cuts of chicken (breast, drumstick…). Finally, while fried chicken can be enjoyed with a multitude of sauces, karaage is flavourful enough to be enjoyed by itself. If needed, it can be eaten with a dab of mayonnaise or some lemon juice (“remonjiru”).
At this stage, if you haven’t rushed off to eat some karaage, you may be wondering when karaage was invented in Japan and by whom (unless it was brought over from China). Unfortunately, it is hard to pin down an exact date, let alone a name. Deep-frying food as a cooking method was first introduced by the Portuguese in the 16th century through tempura. However, the Japanese only started deep-frying pieces of chicken in the 1920s. The dish had its breakthrough during the economic crisis that followed World War II, when chicken meat became a commodity that could be bought cheaper than other kinds of meats. There are also many local variants of the karaage – “toriten” (karaage made tempura style) in Oita prefecture (also said to be the birthplace of karaage), “chicken nanban” (fried chicken topped with tartar sauce) in Miyazaki prefecture, “tebasaki” (deep-fried chicken wings) in Nagoya, and “zangi” in Hokkaido, which is the main kind found at Toriro.
Toriro and the “Hokkaido zangi”
Karaageya Toriro から揚げ屋トリロー was started by Shiraiwa-san who moved from his native Hokkaido to Tokyo about ten years ago. He deep-fries the karaage while his wife helps him serve the customers. He opened his first shop near Shinjuku-gyoen, but afterwards moved to the Arakicho neighbourhood. They are currently celebrating the three years anniversary of their Arakicho shop. Like most places in the area, the restaurant feels rather secretive, tucked away on the left side at the top of a dead-end street. Look out for their signboard placed at the head of the street, and their front door, brightly decorated with an outline of a rooster in red and yellow. It’s kept open at at a right angle to the street, so that it can be seen from afar (except on Mondays when Toriro is closed). The shop interior is painted red, with comfortable seats (6 tables and 10 seats), as well as a bar counter with 5 more seats, since the place doubles as a bar in the evening (although they close fairly early, at 10pm, and there is no all-you-can-eat menu). There is also a TV easily viewable from any seat which makes it a good place to watch sporting events. Lately they have also started doing live events in the evenings. A word of caution though – smoking is allowed at all times. If that’s an issue, they also have a take-out menu, so why not get your karaage to go?
Between servings of karaage, I asked Shiraiwa-san a few questions about his store. The store name was simply the Japanese word for chicken meat (“tori”) with a “ro” added at the end – a common ending for Japanese male first names (like “Ichiro”). Sounds like a good name for a pet rooster – and indeed, there is a rooster painted on the entrance door (an association I only made while writing this article). Next, I asked him to tell me more about his karaage recipe, unless of course it was a secret. “No, it’s not a secret at all,” he replied “I can talk openly about it.” He explained that the preparation method is more or less similar to what I described above, except that one day his wife suggested adding miso to the marinating mixture. They liked the end result and decided to add it permanently to their karaage recipe. The “zangi” karaage is coated with potato starch, but the other kinds are coated with rice flour. “Zangi?” I said, “What is that?”. “It’s karaage Hokkaido style” he replied. He was hard pressed to explain the exact difference so I decided to do a little research for myself.
Actually, it wasn’t surprising that Shiraiwa-san was at a loss to explain “zangi” – most people, from Hokkaido or not, were too. It seems that it comes from the city of Kushiro in the Eastern part of Hokkaido. Some people say that it’s simply the way karaage is called there, others say that there are differences in the way it is prepared. The main thing I noticed when eating at Toriro, is how huge the pieces were – almost double the normal size! It was also surprisingly chunky – it was impossible to eat it with only one bite! Finally, where does the name come from?
According to my friend Jenny living in Taipei, “zha ji” is fried chicken in Chinese, and it seems that the the letter “n” in the middle means good luck. Thus eating “zangi” can bring you good luck or happiness. I definitely hope so, because as you’ll see below, I had a lot of it!
How can you enjoy their all-you-can-eat karaage?
So let’s get into the nitty gritty of their main attraction – the all-you-can-eat karaage lunch deal. After entering the store during lunchtime (11am – 4pm) and choosing a seat, you’ll be handed the one page menu (Japanese only). You can pick one of the 4 lunch sets – each of them with 5 pieces, all the same kind of karaage, one being the chunky “zangi”. This is good, if you’ve been there before and know what kind you like best. Otherwise, and this is what I recommend, you can choose the 5th set (simply called “MIX”) – 3 different Karaage and 2 “zangi”.
Once you’ve placed your order, help yourself to bean sprout (“moyashi”) salad, rice, soup and a bewildering number of sauces. The unmarked tall and clear bottle, next to the big upside down mayonnaise tube, is the salad dressing. Having customers help themselves, helps keep the price of each all-you-can-each set at a very reasonable 980 yen. In case you chose the mix, Shiraiwa-san, having served you the dish with the 5 pieces, will place a card in front of the dish with the names and placement of the different karaage. After tasting them all, you can re-order any kind you liked using one of the small slips of paper (“tsuika kado” 追加カード) rolled up in the glass on the table – just write down the number of pieces next to desired kind of karaage.
TOP LEFT – Tamari soy sauce chicken breast (“tamari shoyu mune” たまり醤油むね)
BOTTOM LEFT – “Addictive” spicy chicken thigh (“yamitsu kara momo” やみつ辛もも)
CENTER – Spicy chicken breast (“supaishi mune” スパイシーむね)
RIGHT TOP & BOTTOM – Hokkaido style karaage (“Hokkaido Zangi” 北海道ザンギ)
My favourites by far are the “Zangi” and the spicy chicken thigh (which isn’t too spicy). The spicy chicken breast is reminiscent of (but better than) a chicken nugget. I’m not much of a sauce guy so I’m perfectly content to eat my karaage plain or with a very slight dab of mayonnaise. However, according to fellow Tadaima Japan writer Anthony “the flavours and seasonings used by Shiraiwa-san are what make the restaurant worth checking out. Plus I think people from almost any country can appreciate 食べ放題!” That last bit in Chinese characters reads as “tabehodai” and is how the the all-you-can-eat system is called in Japan.
If you didn’t already know, Japan is famous for its all-you-can-drink and all you-can-eat system. There are many places in Tokyo that will let you drink as many beers, or eat as much grilled meat as you can, for a set price and for a specific time period (usually 90 or 120 minutes), mostly during dinner time. If you are able to drink or eat more than the average Japanese person, these can be really good deals, especially for the budget traveller. However, it’s important to keep in mind that it is considered bad manners if you do not polish off your plate. At Toriro, it’s expressly forbidden to leave anything on your plate, when having the lunch set. Since you can reorder many times over and without any time limit till the end of lunchtime, it’s best to err on the side of caution and under-order rather than over-order. I find that 10-12 pieces is usually as much as I can eat (less if it’s “zangi”).
And finally – already after your first visit you’ll be handed a small card on which it is written “Good client” (“jokokyakusama” 上顧客様), and which you can present next time you eat there. It upgrades your 4-kind 5-piece set to a 6-kind 6-piece one. This off-the-menu set includes one piece of every karaage mentioned previously, plus two bonus ones: potherb thigh and potherb breast (“koumiyasai momo / mune” 香味野菜もも・むね). If you find all this to be quite baffling, don’t worry – according to Shiraiwa-san, Japanese customers find it confusing as well. Probably the best thing is to go there and try it out for yourself. Let’s not forget that the Toriro Karaageya slogan is “Hokkaido zangi to one’s heart’s content!”
For smartphone users, please click the link below to go to the Tadaima Japan website which includes additional location details: