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How Fried Chicken Captured the Hearts of Chinese Youth

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Young China Plates is a monthly series in which we digest the latest food trends making young Chinese people’s mouths water. Drop us a line if you have a suggestion.

Chinese people love fried chicken just as much as Americans, if not more.

Since KFC opened its first outlet in China in 1987, the country has become home to the most KFC stores globally, with 7,300 outlets in more than 1,500 cities.

And roughly a year ago, another American fried chicken chain — Popeyes — opened its first shop in the Chinese mainland, despite the ongoing pandemic. Our very own Bryan Grogan, RADII’s former culture editor, went to check it out on its opening day, but he failed to get through the crowds.

These are just two examples of American brands capitalizing on China’s enthusiasm for fried chicken — which goes way beyond American varieties and dates back thousands of years.

American Lifestyle

For many Chinese youths, KFC represents some of their best childhood memories. It was where kids hung out with friends, collected toys, celebrated birthdays, and had family dinners.

“There were basically no other places selling fried chicken when I was a kid, so going to KFC was as big of a deal as celebrating Chinese New Year,” says Rum Z, 24, a Shanghai-based pharmaceutical R&D specialist. She adds:

“KFC was very fashionable back in the day. Dining there was a very Western and modern thing to do.”

As a fried chicken lover, Rum Z says she used to have fried chicken once or twice a week during college.

kfc fried chicken

KFC entered the Chinese mainland in 1987. Image courtesy of Danzhe Chen

KFC entered the Chinese mainland at a special time. It was the first American fast-food chain to launch in the country after China opened up to foreign businesses in 1978. Similar to what we saw when Popeyes opened in Shanghai, people had to wait hours to place their orders when KFC first opened in Beijing more than three decades ago.

At that time, one piece of fried chicken cost one-fifth of a Beijingers’ average salary. Still, according to Eater, the flagship store sold more than 2,200 buckets of fried chicken and made about 3,000USD in just 24 hours.

Related:

KFC is Now Serving Wuhan’s Famous Hot and Dry Noodles

The popularity of American fried chicken is not only due to the taste, but more importantly, the culture.

“It’s not just a type of food; American fried chicken represents Western culture, a brand-new lifestyle, and a big trend,” says Zheng Nan, a professor at the Institute of Chinese Food Studies. “American fast-food chains also represent a new management model and quantifiable and standardized cooking methods for China’s catering industry.”

Korean Romance

Then Korean fried chicken became a thing around 2013 when the K-drama My Love From the Star became a hit in China. One iconic scene, in particular, grabbed attention: the heroine was craving chimek, the Korean word for ‘chicken and beer,’ in celebration of the year’s first snowfall.

While Chinese K-drama fans were drawn into the love story, the above-mentioned scene sparked their curiosity, and many went out searching for chimek. Mukbang videos later propelled the chicken-and-beer pairing into the mainstream.

In Shanghai alone, almost 600 results show up when searching chimek on China’s Yelp-like platform Dianping. The hashtag for chimek (zhaji pijiu 炸鸡啤酒) has garnered more than 19 million views on the Chinese microblogging platform Weibo.

fried chicken and beer

“Chimek on a rainy day,” reads a comment on Weibo. Screengrab via Weibo

Korean fried chicken does taste different from the American variety. The chicken is usually seasoned and fried twice, so it comes with a thinner, crispier crust and more flavorful meat.

korean fried chicken

Korean fried chicken comes with a thinner, crispier crust and more flavorful meat. Image courtesy of Danzhe Chen

Its global popularity is a testament to the South Korean pop-culture wave that K-dramas and K-pop have helped to spread worldwide.

“The popularity of fried chicken is an acceptance, recognition, or even admiration of the pop culture behind it,” Zheng says.

Zheng remembers when one of her students bought a franchise from the Korean fried chicken chain Thank U Mom shortly after the TV drama went viral. The restaurant expanded to almost all major cities in Zhejiang province within one month, and all branches realized profitability one month later.

“That is the strength and charm of pop culture,” Zheng says.

Chinese Ancient Fry

If you happen to walk on the streets of China, chances are you’ll see one of these domestic fried chicken fast-food restaurants: Wallace, Dicos, or Zhengxin Chicken Steak. They didn’t exist until the late ’90s or early ’00s but have quickly caught up and arguably surpassed the likes of KFC.

Zhengxin Chicken Steak only opened in 2000 but now boasts the most fried chicken stores in the country. As of the middle of 2020, it reportedly had 22,030 shops — triple the number of KFC outlets in China. Zhengxin managed to launch nearly 600 new stores last April even as the pandemic was still raging.

zhengxin fried chicken

Zhengxin has the most fried chicken shops in China. Image courtesy of Lu Zhao

Besides its franchising strategy and super cheap prices (less than 1USD for a box), Zhengxin has smaller-sized chicken pieces than its foreign competitors, accommodating consumption using chopsticks or skewers — a preferred dining method for many Chinese people.

The fast-food chain also offers four seasoning options to make its chicken more flavorful, including cumin, tomato, chili, and plum.

fried chicken Zhenxin

Chili- and plum-flavored fried chicken from Zhenxin Chicken Steak. Image courtesy of Danzhe Chen

But these modern fried chicken shops are not the start of the story: China actually invented its own fried chicken thousands of years ago — hulu chicken (葫芦鸡).

It’s a traditional dish from Chang’an — modern-day Xi’an, the ancient Chinese capital of the Tang Dynasty. After being boiled, steamed, and fried, the trussed chicken takes on a gourd-like shape, which is the literal meaning of hulu in Chinese. The chicken meat is supposed to be super tender and fall off the bone.

Unfortunately, the culinary creation didn’t become a staple on Chinese plates, something experts credit to the lack of animal fat in ancient China.

“In the development of Chinese food culture, after the [creation of] primitive roasting techniques and the appearance of pottery utensils, Chinese people quickly developed the cooking methods of boiling and steaming as well as an advanced agrarian civilization,” Zheng says. “Frying did not become a general food processing method in Chinese food culture because there were very few raw animal materials and a shortage of fats and oils.”

Now a millennia later, young people have rediscovered the appeal of fried chicken and have become more open to the foreign culture and lifestyle it represents. As day-to-day jobs have become more mundane and stressful, the pleasure you can get from a box of fried chicken seems more accessible than ever to young workers.

“The happiness of fried chicken is very simple, fast, convenient, and cheap. It’s arguably one of the things that people nowadays can get the most satisfaction from with the least money,” Rum Z says.

Cover image by Sabina Islas and Rubie Chen

Lu Zhao
Lu Zhao is a bilingual and multimedia journalist with a focus on human interest and social issues. Her work has appeared in USA Today, UPI, SupChina, Pandaily, Chicago Reporter, and other publications.