A certain fast-food chain might have popularised the Southern-style fried bird, but it is definitely not how it originated.
According to studies, the idea of fried chicken was first brought into America by Scottish immigrants. But the herbaceous seasonings and spices were introduced by the Africans during the time of the slave trade, leading to the well-seasoned crispy chicken we know today.
What gives Southern-style fried chicken its distinctive flavour? Besides the herbs and spices used, it is also about picking the right bird, using the right flour and oil, and how the chicken is brined. "There isn’t one key ingredient to making southern fried chicken," says John Kunkel, founder and CEO of Yardbird Southern Table & Bar in the US. The Bird, the first international branch of the popular Miami restaurant, recently opened in Marina Bay Sands.
Next up is the dredge (breading of the chicken). You want your flour to be well-seasoned. Then there's the oil — you want one with a very high smoking point so you get that nice crunchy skin without burning the chicken."
Essentially, a brine is a salt-and-water solution. But the key to a good brine is being able to adjust the ratio of salt to water to achieve a balanced salinity. Over at Bird Bird along Frankel Avenue, the team spent over a month researching on getting the brine right. They also opted for plump sakura chickens over the French poulet, the latter more commonly used in fine-dining restaurants, as the Japanese birds absorbed the brine a lot better.
"We had to look at the size of the chickens we were using, and then adjust the brine strength and figure out the amount of time the meat should be left in the brine," says chef-owner Bjorn Shen. "Let's just say we got the brine concentration right, and I can tell you it is a funny number," he jokes.
Then, there's also the matter of using the right oil. "You want to use something like Crisco, with a very high smoking point so that you can cook the chicken at a high temperature without burning it, and get that nice crispy, crunchy skin," shares Kunkel.
Not all battered birds are created equal, either. Over at Bird Bird, the differences are clear as day. Here, the restaurant serves up three main types of fried chicken — a Thai, Lebanese, and the Southern version. While all three types use plump sakura chickens and undergo the same brining process at the start, the Thai method coats the meat in a rice flour batter, while the Southern style uses a dredge method in seasoned flour.
"For the Thai fried chicken, we added things like soy and fish sauce to the rice flour batter," says Shen. "For the Southern one, however, we used different spices such as celery seeds and paprika. The flavours and skin texture are very different," he continues.
And while Korean fried chicken is typically tossed in a spicy gojuchang base sauce, the chicken at The Bird is dipped in a seasoned flour dredge and has a herbaceous, slightly spiced flavour to its crunchy skin.
Most common pairings for Southern fried chicken would be to have it as a main with a side of savoury cornbread waffles and bourbon maple syrup. But for Kunkel, it's a treat that can be enjoyed for breakfast, lunch and even dinner. "Southern fried chicken is really served for all occasions," he shares. "For lunch, we can have it tossed in hot sauce, topped with lettuce, and house-made pickles on a bun, or it can be served for dinner with a side of delicious greens and mac' N cheese."