You've successfully subscribed to American Purpose
Great! Next, complete checkout for full access to American Purpose
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
Success! Your account is fully activated, you now have access to all content.
Success! Your newsletter subscriptions is updated.
Newsletter subscriptions update failed.
Success! Your billing info is updated.
Billing info update failed.
Drumstick Diplomacy

Drumstick Diplomacy

Korean fried chicken has a savory story to tell about wartime culture and the Korean diaspora.

Carolyn Stewart

It’s easy to think of Korean fried chicken as just another fast food. After all, chains like BonChon and Pelicana Chicken can be found the world over. But this double-fried dish wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the Korean War and the seventy-year-strong Korean-American alliance. And for Korean Americans in the United States, the dish is an important point of connection and identity. 

“It’s more than just a twist on an American South comfort food,” Alexander Ahn tells me. Ahn is one of the hosts of the Gochujang Gang, a Korean-American podcast that, like its namesake condiment, offers up spicy conversations of Korean pop culture and identity. The four podcasters spent an entire month debating the merits of different Korean fried chicken chains—which, by my estimation, puts them in the top 5 percent of Korean fried chicken experts worldwide.

Being from the South, it’s sacrilege to say that anything beats a piece of fried chicken fresh from your grandma’s iron skillet. Carried into Appalachia by Scottish immigrants, it’s a dish that’s older than the United States. But Korean fried chicken arguably beats its American cousin at its own game.

Korean fried chicken is deep-fried twice, at different temperatures, to create its trademark crispy shell. Before hitting the fryer, it might have enjoyed a twelve-hour bath in a savory garlic brine, as per Pelicana, one of the oldest Korean fried chicken chains. It can be dressed in a myriad of ways: brushed with a soy-garlic sauce; tossed in a tangy cheese powder; or, as in the case of snow chicken, hidden under a tangle of raw onion shavings and an indescribable cream sauce that’s on the spectrum between mayonnaise and vanilla custard. Take the best qualities of your downhome Sunday picnic fried chicken—the crunch, the savoriness—and crank the dial to ten.

Others agree. In South Korea alone, there were about 87,000 fried chicken shops in recent years—more than double the number of McDonald’s franchises across the world. The shops became such a popular business investment, in fact, that the South Korean government had to step in and regulate how many fried chicken franchise outlets could be established within set regions.

Nearly three hundred different franchises operate globally. This comes as no surprise to Ahn and his podcast co-hosts. They see the dish as the “current flagbearer for Korean food—and, by extension, Korean culture—outside of the peninsula.” 

That may be true, but questions lurk in the back of this eater's mind. Is Korean fried chicken authentic? And does authenticity even matter if a trendy dish can offer cultural relevance and connection to a diaspora community?

Korean fried chicken is an authentically Korean dish, notes Gochujang Gang co-host Amanda Sul. “The fact that non-Koreans are enjoying and appreciating Korean fried chicken and associating it with Korean culture makes it authentic.” Furthermore, many Korean foods that we consider to be traditionally authentic first began as dishes that were adapted to fit the preferences and ingredients of the time—hardly different from how fried chicken has gained a foothold across Korea.

Sometimes fried chicken is more than fried chicken. For members of the Korean-American community in the United States, the popularization of any aspect of Korean culture can have a meaningful impact for young people who are part of the diaspora. “It’s not easy growing up as a minority, and even harder when it seems wrong in the eyes of the mainstream to enjoy what your culture has to offer,” notes Gochujang Gang co-host Chadwick Ahn. 

As one of the few Asian kids in her school growing up, Sul always felt alone. With few classmates to share her interests in high school, she became the “quiet kid who didn’t talk much.” That changed when K-pop (Korean pop music) gained recognition, and Sul’s classmates began approaching her to chat about the latest band or music video. And with the increasing popularity of Korean fried chicken, many of Sul’s friends have been eager to try other Korean dishes. “After many years of trying to fit in, it’s comforting and relieving to feel like I can be myself and still be accepted,” she notes. 

But popularity has its downsides. Brian Oh, who has written a guide to the dining scene within Northern Virginia’s large Korean community, notes that Korean fried chicken may have contributed to the underrepresentation of other Korean dishes by crowding out its culinary competitors. “Now that everyone is talking about Korean fried chicken and barbeque, it glosses over Korea’s more historic emphasis on fermentation, pickling, and long-simmering communal stews,” he told me. Traditionally meant as a celebratory meal, the dish has lost its special association over the years as South Korea recovered from the war and chicken became affordable.

To discuss the political nuances of this popular dish, I met up with a diplomat for her perspective.  

Kathleen Stephens, former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea, agreed to share her perspective with me on Korean fried chicken’s culinary diplomacy. As the first female ambassador to South Korea, not to mention the first Korean speaker to serve in that role, she has spent decades deeply immersed in Korean culture.

She first traveled to South Korea as a Peace Corps volunteer in the late Seventies, where she worked at a school in the country’s rural northwest. She recently served as president and chief executive officer of the Korea Economic Institute, capping an extensive diplomatic career that led her to China, the former Yugoslavia, Portugal, and Northern Ireland, where she played a key role in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

Which is to say, Stephens is massively overqualified to be interviewed on fried chicken.  

She kindly met up with me for lunch at a Korean-Chinese-American fusion restaurant not far from Dupont Circle in Washington. Loud pop bounced off the concrete walls, and the steady cadence of a wok being tossed in the kitchen offered a rhythm to our conversation. 

Korean fried chicken might reflect modern Korea, but it taps into the country’s traditional cultural currents. Throughout Korea’s history, notes Ambassador Stephens, Korean culture has assimilated different influences. “There was a great deal of cultural interaction among these northeast Asian countries,” she says. China brought Neo-Confucianism and Buddhism, while Japanese rule at the turn of the century left an indelible impact. This constant engagement lent its own characteristics to Korean society, strengthening the nation’s proficiency at adapting outside influences and making them their own.  

The Korean War (1950–53) was one such defining event for Korean cuisine. While the origins of Korean fried chicken aren’t strictly known, many Korean newspapers trace its beginnings to the war. Different origin stories abound. One claims that fried chicken was served in the mess halls of U.S. military bases in Korea, popularizing it more broadly. Another story claims that, on Thanksgiving and with nary a turkey in site, American GIs and their Korean counterparts celebrated with fried chicken. And yet another origin story credits Black American GIs with introducing the Southern staple to locals. Primary sources are scant, however, in buttressing any version of the GI’s-brought-fried-chicken-to-Korea theory. 

Some follow the roots of fried chicken back even further—Korea’s oldest written cookbook, dating back to 1459, carries a related recipe. Author Jeon Sun-ui, the chief medical officer to three kings during the Joseon dynasty, describes a recipe for pogye, where sliced and seasoned chicken is fried in hot oil. At the time, the dish was only available to the yangban, or traditional ruling class—a far shift from what Korean fried chicken would become.

Ambassador Stephens believes the Korean War theory might be closer to the truth, noting that, “When the war ended in armistice in 1953, [the United States established] an enduring presence which continues to this day.” This enduring American military presence, more so than the war itself, would have brought bases equipped with commissaries and a military exchange. As South Korea experienced a severe grain and meat shortage in the years following the war, American food geared toward the American soldier’s tastes found its way to the black-market economy and, once there, began shaping Korean palates as well.

American policy also shaped South Korea’s postwar cuisine. President Dwight Eisenhower signed the “Food for Peace” program into law in 1954, which allowed him to authorize the shipment of surplus commodities to “friendly” countries suffering from food shortages. According to the Korea Times, the program brought fifty to sixty tons of rice, wheat, and barley into the country, the equivalent of 40 percent of Korea’s domestically-grown counterparts. 

Korea’s government also addressed the grain shortage by regulating the consumption of rice. Laws required food vendors to dilute their rice with other grains, and restaurants were restricted from serving rice at lunchtime on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Citizens were encouraged to eat bunsik—or foods made with flour—and so they did, with wheat-based noodles and gnocchi becoming popular. This familiarity with wheat flour, a key ingredient for fried chicken, could have contributed to its adoption by home cooks down the road.

In the difficult economic environment of the Seventies and Eighties, chicken remained a special treat, a luxury that parents might bring home on payday. “Once a year, you’d have a sports tournament at school or go on a field trip. That’s when parents would pack fried chicken," said Lee Yunsoo, assistant director of Pelicana Chicken, which was founded during that time and has a number of locations in the United States. 

The Colonel also played a role in bringing fried chicken to Korea. 

Kentucky Fried Chicken entered the local market in 1984, with South Koreans willing to pay higher prices for the American-style fried chicken they had heard about during the Korean War. As the dish’s popularity increased, it boosted the success of native fried chicken establishments. During this renaissance of crispy chicken, Yoon Jong-gye, the founder of Mexican Chicken, developed the distinctly  Korean spice blend that would come to be associated with the country’s fried chicken. This sweet and spicy blend known as yangnyeom is often made with gochujang, garlic, rice syrup (similar to corn syrup), and soy sauce. Yoon Jong-gye chose not to patent his sauce blend, leading to its endless replication from that point onwards.

In a recession, demand shifts from more expensive proteins to cheaper ones, and the broiler economics of South Korea bear this out. During the 1997 Asian financial crisis, 80 percent of households experienced a reduction in income. Unemployment tripled. The ensuing demand for poultry, which by this point in time had become one of the more affordable proteins, sustained an already growing number of Korean fried chicken chains.  

A Korean fried chicken shop in Melbourne, Australia. (Unsplash: Christine Enero)

My first experience with Korean fried chicken was at a small restaurant tucked into a Seoul alleyway. The glowing signs outside the shop, a giant white hen and a glass of beer, drew me into its safe harbor. In South Korea, fried chicken and beer are an inseparable duo collectively known as chimaek

The chimaek shop was clean and calm, a one-room restaurant with chestnut-hued booths. My order was taken by a kindly grandfather type, in a departure from the American service industry’s younger demographics. He disappeared into the kitchen and returned with a large platter of russet-toned fried chicken. Perched on top, a nest of shaved green onion to lend a pleasant sharp interlude between bites of rich meat. In the quiet and unrushed dining room, I washed down the meal with a golden lager and watched the older gentleman attend to other diners, bus tables, and disappear into the kitchen to presumably make our meals.

As I’d later learn, retirement-age men and women are one of the primary groups opening chimaek shops. Within South Korea’s corporate culture, younger workers are often valued over those in their fifties and older—meaning that many men and women face early retirement and must look for other ways to supplement their pensioners income. Chimaek shops, given their relatively low overhead, labor, and footprint, remain an appealing business option for middle-class families. 

“Korea is a land of great waves,” Ambassador Stephens said over lunch. Fads come and go with tremendous ferocity. Before fried chicken took off, South Korea went through a tabang, or tea shop, craze. These tea shops were then replaced by Korean coffeeshops, which are also experiencing a renaissance on par with Korean fried chicken. 

Yet it’s entirely possible that Korean fried chicken is here to stay. Thanks in part to global sport competitions, the dish graduated from national trend to global craze. One unintended consequence of the 2002 FIFA World Cup, which was hosted by South Korea and Japan, is that many Korean fans across the world made their favorite spectator food while watching the matches: fried chicken. Meanwhile, the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics exposed international visitors to the dish, with one Korean newspaper going so far as to say that Korean fried chicken was the real winner of the Olympics. 

Today, Korean fried chicken chains and franchises can be found worldwide, with diners in the D.C. area having their pick between Choongman Chicken, Chi Mc Korean Fried Chicken, multiple locations of Bonchon, Pelicana, bb.q Chicken, KoChix Chicken and other chimaek spots.

As the Gochujang Gang points out, there’s much more to Korean culture than fried chicken, the K-pop group BTS, and Bong Joon-ho’s movie Parasite (however great these cultural exports might be). I queried the group about which other Korean foods are worthy of fried chicken-levels of fame. 

To balance out the prevalence of unhealthy Korean dishes that are trending in the States, Alexander Ahn suggests trying ssam, a way of eating meats and other foods by wrapping them in a leafy vegetable and flavorful condiments, a style that originated in the Buddhist temples of Korea. Amanda Sul recommended gejang, marinated and fermented raw crab. “In Korea we call it “bab-dodook,” which translates to “rice thief,” meaning that you’ll finish a whole bowl of rice with just a little flavorful crab. Michael Maddux is a fan of gyeranjjim, or Korean steamed eggs—great as an alternative to scrambled eggs for breakfast or as a side at dinner.

Chadwick Ahn suggests a dish that is “impossible to find in the U.S.,” Pyongyang-style naengmyeon. The unofficial national dish of North Korea, cold buckwheat noodles are nestled into an iced beef broth and topped with sliced radish, cucumber, and eggs. It’s “savory but refreshing,” Ahn notes, and specific chains serving Pyongyang naengmyeon can be found in South Korea and around the world. Culinary diplomacy, it seems, comes in many forms.

Carolyn Stewart is the managing editor of American Purpose and orders Bonchon monthly.

Top image: Korean fried chicken from a chain in Jackson Heights, New York. (Flickr: Moonberry)

CultureAsiaEconomicsImmigrationUnited StatesU.S. Foreign Policy