A visit to an izakaya in Japan isn't complete without tasting certain Japanese pub staples—among them edamame, yakitori, sashimi and karaage. Served piping hot, this mega-popular Japanese take on fried chicken packs a flavor punch. If done right, it's crispy on the outside, succulent on the inside and—unexpectedly—light as a feather.
Today's menu will cover the famous Japanese chicken dish that sounds-a-little-like ka-rah-tay-and-is-just-as-likely-to-leave-you-floored, karaage (for how to pronounce karaage, it's kahrah - ahgeh).
What is Karaage?
Karaage is Japan's answer to fried chicken. Light and tasty, with a crispy exterior and soft chicken meat inside, karaage is one of Japan's most popular foods, across age groups and prefectural borders.
What Does "Karaage" Mean?
Karaage (唐揚げ or sometimes 空揚げ) is written with one of two characters, followed by the kanji for “fried.” The first of these two used to have two readings: “tou” (like the big one on your foot) or “kara”. This kanji is typically attached to food and cultural contributions from China’s Tang Dynasty, during which the cuisine was thought to be introduced to Japan for the first time (about 1000 years before the Edo era).
China’s karaage looked much more like modern crispy tofu nuggets, where small cubes of firm tofu were coated in corn starch, fried, and then simmered or coated in sauce.
The second way of writing karaage uses the character for “sky,” “open,” or “empty.” It is said to come from how karaage is fried without being battered, unlike tempura (which may have been introduced and popularized around the same time).
So what does karaage mean? The short answer: Japanese fried chicken. The long answer: Karaage either means something like “fried food from China’s Tang Dynasty”, or “fried without dredging in batter”. Take it as you will.
A Brief History of Karaage: It Wasn't Always Chicken!
From Tofu to Fish and Finally Chicken
If you see just karaage written on a menu, you can bet that you’re getting tori (chicken) karaage. As mentioned above, the original karaage was actually a tofu dish from China, invented between 600 and 900 AD.
When it was first introduced in Japan, kaisen karaage, karaage-style fried seafood, and karaage vegetables were the main types of karaage. Up until the government-sponsored campaigns of the Meiji era, the Japanese diet was almost entirely pescatarian.
After World War II, food scarcities plagued many parts of the nation. Food needed to be filling, nutritious, and easy to eat and prepare, so raising poultry for meat and eggs gained popularity. At this time, American military restructuring projects also introduced the broiler chicken.
Bred with “Western technology”, the broiler chicken was bigger and easier to raise for meat than Japan’s home-grown stock, and thus karaage became even easier to come by. The broiler chicken’s rich meat and size made it perfect for frying.
Modern Karaage: Born in Ginza ... or Oita?
Karaage's rise to fame then moves to Ginza, home to many youshoku restaurants (see our tonkatsu guide for more on that). Devised as a cheap menu item to save a struggling business by Mikasa Kaikan in 1932, chicken karaage quickly became a hit.
Mikasa Kaikan's karaage is still bone-in-style at their tentpole location in Tokyo. It's said that modern karaage was originally invented in Ginza, but the folks of Oita Prefecture might have some strong words about that...
Today's karaage capital is found in southern Kyushu, where fried foods were brought to Japan by Portuguese missionaries. Formerly the Kingdom of Bungo, the clan leader of this area had a notorious reputation for his Christian leanings. Such out-of-the-box thinking may not have been popular then, but it allowed the kingdom to more readily welcome Western cooking methods and "exotic" ingredients.
Even today, Kyushu is known for its flour-heavy cuisine and as the birthplace of tempura. Over time, adaptations to Japanese tastes and influence from Chinese cuisine morphed Kyushu's love for Portuguese fried foods into today's karaage.
In the 1950s, a restaurant called Rairaiken in Usa City introduced boneless karaage to their menu. From there, it hopped from Chinese food joint to Chinese food joint across Usa and neighboring Nakatsu City. Today, about 50 karaage specialty stores span the area, which also boasts its own karaage association.
What can we take from all this? Karaage chicken is a huge deal in Japan, whether you trace its roots to Tokyo or Kyushu.
Serious Business: Karaage Associations
The National Karaage Association (a separate entity from Nakatsu and Usa's) upholds the tenets and craft of karaage for chicken lovers nationwide. Not only did they produce a whole film to promote the product as a national soul food, but they also host an annual competition to sniff out the best karaage in the country.
Up to now, it's been a popular-vote competition, giving chains a huge advantage. But starting in 2023, a judging panel has taken up the reins, offering stand-out mom-and-pop stands a well-deserved chance at the crown.
What is the Difference Between Karaage and Fried Chicken?
It's complicated: karaage is not actually fried chicken. Yes, karaage is chicken meat that has been cooked in hot oil, but it’s not the same as fried chicken. The difference lies in the preparation method that lends karaage its special place on the Japanese menu. There are a couple of key stipulations:
- Karaage is marinated: Karaage’s unique flavor must come from its marinade. Fried chicken, in contrast, mainly gets its flavor from seasoning in its batter or sauces/toppings applied after. The National Karaage Association votes on karaage based on a shio tare (salt marinade) or shoyu tare (soy sauce marinade), and the dividing line is quite stark.
- Karaage is not dredged in batter: Unlike tempura which uses a liquid batter, or katsu, which relies on panko (breadcrumbs), karaage theoretically uses only dry coatings. Potato starch, corn starch, rice flour, and wheat flour are all used, each with its unique texture and result. But across the board, karaage’s frying technique produces light, crispy outsides, with a juicy center and uneven surface texture.
Karaage tastes and looks very similar to fried chicken, so it's a good choice no matter where you go, especially for families traveling with picky eaters.
Types of Karaage
Here's an overview of the main types of karaage you'll find in Japan.
Common Types of Chicken Karaage
Karaage senmonten, aka specialty stores whose main product is karaage, serve many different types of karaage. From tebasaki karaage chicken wings, to momo thigh-meat karaage (the most popular type of karaage in Japan) to mune white meat and sasami tenderloins, you’ll be spoiled for choice. All of them are delicious, but like fried chicken, the fat content and texture depend on the cut of meat used.
Other Types of Chicken Karaage
Two other types of Japanese chicken karaage include soft chicken bone cartilage karaage and chicken skin.
You can find remnants of kaisen karaage in the form of ika gesso (squid) and tako (octopus nuggets, effectively.) Fugu karaage is also a thing!
Tatsuta Age: A Special Type of Karaage
Karaage goes by different names, one of which is tatsuta age. Between the shio tare and shoyu tare, tatsuta age is narrowed to the latter. The soy sauce marinade gives the chicken a reddish brown color, and when only potato starch is used for frying, the result is a crispy white outside.
This pattern is said to look like autumn leaves on the Tatsuta River in Nara, so the specific combination of soy-sauce marinated, potato-starch only karaage gets this special name. Like squares and rectangles, every tatsuta age is a karaage, but not every karaage is tatsuta. It's a particularly delicious style if you can find it!
Hokkaido-style Karaage: Zangi
Hokkaido has its own specialty karaage (maybe…as the frying base has egg, rather than being truly batterless), marinated in a sweeter sauce and called zangi.
How to Enjoy Karaage
1. Choose Your Venue
Street food stalls, washoku and youshoku restaurants, karaage senmonten (specialty shops) and izakaya are all great places to get karaage. Even convenience stores sell it!
2. Choose Your Flavor
Almost all Japanese fried chicken stores will offer karaage in shoyu (soy sauce) and shio (salt) flavors. These are the marinade bases that karaage steeps in before frying. However, an ordinary restaurant, izakaya, or street stall may only have shio/salt/plain flavor.
Toppings commonly include negi (onion), lemon, nanban (which is like halfway between egg salad and tartar sauce), tare (we would probably think of that as a sweet teriyaki glaze), and Japanese mayonnaise.
3. Choose Your Cut
Whether you want classically juicy momo thigh meat, white meat mune with a good bite to it, crispy chicken-wing tebasaki, or a whole new texture experience with chewy-crunchy cartilage, there is no bad cut of karaage chicken!
4. Add on Drinks and Sides
What is karaage eaten with? If you're wondering what karaage "goes with," you might be surprised to find that it's eaten pretty much the same way a chicken tender or nugget meal might be served abroad.
Instead of fries and a side of steamed broccoli, karaage teishoku meals usually come with rice, miso soup, and cabbage. Karaage makes a great drinking buddy. Its crispy saltiness pairs well with light lagers, cervezas, and Japanese beer like Kirin or Asahi.
As with most Japanese foods, rice is always a great accompaniment. Japanese pickles and drinking snacks like edamame, tamagoyaki, and chilled tofu are good choices too. You should eat karaage with something refreshing and acidic to emphasize the spices and salt in the crispy marinated meat!
Best Fried Chicken in Japan: Recommended Karaage Restaurants
Our recommended karaage restaurants in Tokyo include:
- Karaage House Iwai (Tokyo): 2023 Grand Prix Shoyu Champion! Centrally located in Taito Ward.
- Yoshiko—for fugu fish karaage in Tokyo.
- Ain Soph—for vegetarian and vegan karaage in Tokyo.
- Karaage Moriyama (Tokyo): Officially voted the country's best karaage spot, with locations throughout the nation.
- Mikasa Kaikan (Tokyo): The first home of karaage in Tokyo, said to be its inventor.
- Torishin (Nakatsu): Karaage tentpole run by the descendents of Rairaiken's famous karaage—the chicken that shook the nation.