The wonders of Taiwanese fried chicken chops (Zha Ji Pai) begin with its size. They’re massive cutlets of chicken, sometimes bigger than your face, served in paper bags at Taiwan’s night markets. Then there’s the breading, with its beady appearance and unmistakable crunch. Combine all of that with savory, five-spice seasoned chicken and you get a beloved Asian street snack.
To achieve bigger-than-your-face cutlets, you need to butterfly and pound your chicken fillets into thin, even sheets. Sweet potato starch creates the signature breading, crackling up into a light, addictive crust when fried. If you can’t get your hands on it, plain potato starch or tapioca starch are close substitutes. Just don’t use plain flour—it won’t be the same!
- 2 tbsp soy sauce
- 1 tbsp water
- 3 tsp five-spice powder
- 1-2 tsp white sugar
- 1 tsp garlic powder
- ½ tsp black pepper
- 1 kg chicken quarter leg fillet or breast, skin removed
- neutral oil, for frying
- 1 cup sweet potato starch
- 1 cup water
- salt, to taste
- five-spice powder, to taste
Make the marinade: Combine soy sauce, water, five spice powder, sugar, garlic powder, and black pepper in a large bowl. Whisk until well incorporated. Set aside.
Butterfly the chicken: Prepare the chicken on a cutting board. Place your hand flat against the chicken and carefully slice lengthwise with a sharp knife, starting at the thicker side. Make sure not to cut all the way through—stop at about ½ inch from the end. Peel the chicken back to open it up like a book, making shallow cuts down the seam if necessary to lay it flat. You’ll end up with a thinner, longer, and even piece of chicken.
Flatten chicken: Lightly pound the chicken with a mallet until ¼-inch thick. Alternatively, place the chicken in a plastic bag and use a rolling pin to pound.
Marinate chicken: Transfer the pounded chicken to the marinade. Toss to coat, and let marinate in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.
Prepare for frying: Heat oil in a wok or heavy-bottomed skillet over medium to 350ºF. Add sweet potato starch to a tray, creating a breading station. Prepare water in a separate bowl.
Bread chicken: Working one piece at a time, transfer marinated chicken to the starch. Wet your fingertips and dribble water over the chicken. Toss to coat in starch. The water will form small beads in the starch, which will give the chicken an extra crunchy “popcorn” crust.
Fry chicken: Test the oil by dipping a chopstick—it’s ready when bubbles form around it. Carefully drop the breaded chicken into the hot oil and fry for 2–3 minutes. Transfer to a cooling rack to rest for at least 5–10 minutes. Repeat with remaining chicken.
Double-fry chicken: Increase heat until oil reaches 375ºF. Double-fry chicken for 1–2 minutes. Transfer to a cooling rack to drain oil. Season with a pinch of salt and five spice powder while hot.
Serve: Once cool enough to handle, slice chicken chops into thin strips. Serve with rice and cucumber salad.
A cooking thermometer gives you the exact temperature of hot oil, which is extremely useful in perfect deep-fries.
Tapioca starch and potato starch are good alternatives to sweet potato starch. Both will achieve the Taiwanese-style “popcorn” texture.