Melbourne is no stranger to chicken breaded and crisped up by oil. But the parma that's so ubiquitous to pub menus has been joined more recently by a kaleidoscope of fried chook spanning Taiwan, Indonesia, Japan and especially Korea.
Korean fried chicken (the other KFC) can now be found from Williams Landing to Clayton. One of the first Korean fried chicken restaurants to open in Melbourne was Gami, landing in the city in 2009. There are now 20 Gami stores across Victoria and more outposts planned.
Dozens of competitors have launched in Gami's wake too, sporting names such as I Love Chicken, Chickilia and the no-nonsense Korean Chicken. The appeal, says Gami co-founder Jun Lee, lies in the mix of novelty and familiarity.
"I think Korean fried chicken sits in the middle of where Western taste meets Asian taste. It's easy to understand. It's fried chicken and Korean flavour. People do not need to study the food."
Keat Lee, chef at Carlton's Lagoon Dining, which offers a Taiwanese-style chicken chop, agrees that fried chicken's popularity comes down to being an easy sell. "It's quite approachable. It's not too alienating if people see it on the menu," he says.
At Gami, Jun Lee says his chicken is the perfect balance of sweet and salty, summed up by the Korean term "dan-jjan". Most Korean fried chicken is brushed with a glaze – sweet chilli is the signature at Gami. Soy and garlic or the slightly sweet powdered "snow cheese" are also common around town.
Indonesia's answer, ayam goreng, is more about aromatics. Most recipes start with a turmeric-yellow paste rich in shallots, ginger, garlic, lemongrass and galangal.
At family-run Yoi restaurant in the CBD, ayam goreng is joined by other dishes popular across Indonesia where fried chicken is eaten almost daily, says the eatery's co-founder Gideon Sanusi. "We really like fried stuff," he says with a laugh.
There's ayam geprek – chicken that's lightly smashed then topped with extra-hot sambal – and chicken with salted duck yolk sauce served on noodles or rice. The latter is Yoi's best seller.
"We have lots of customers who come and say it's similar to back home,"says Sanusi."It brings back memories."
Regarding all those pub parma and pot specials – are publicans onto something with the pairing of fried chook and beer?
Sacha Imrie, sommelier at CBD Indian restaurant Daughter In Law, says the pairing works because the effervescence in beer counterbalances salty foods. A lager's toasty flavours are a good match for the batter, and the low alcohol content makes it easy to take a big, refreshing gulp. "A crisp lager is a fantastically uncomplicated drink," she says.
Imrie recommends Kingfisher beer to guests who order Daughter In Law's Indian fried chicken, which is spiced at the marinade, coating and serving stages.
"[The dish] is beautifully aromatic, and it's an occasion where it's nice not to interfere with that balance too much," says the sommelier.
Chicken and beer is such a solid pairing it prompted Lachlan Jones to open Benchwarmer, a West Melbourne bar specialising in one-off craft beers and Japanese snacks, including two-bite-sized karaage fried chicken.
Benchwarmer has built a strong following among Melbourne's Japanese community for its easy atmosphere and menu of traditional yakitori alongside its popular karaage.
"It's a drinking culture here." says Jones. "Anything we serve has to be able to be eaten with one hand. So chicken and beer is perfect in that way."
A field guide to Melbourne's fried chicken
Ranging from popcorn to jumbo-sized, Taiwanese fried chicken relies on ingredients including sweet potato starch (for superior crunch), white pepper and five-spice. The Hot Star chain specialises in huge butterflied breast pieces, while Balaclava favourite Jymmanuel offers big or small, hot or mild. For an upscale version, head to Lagoon.
Masala-style fried chicken is brined in spiced yoghurt or buttermilk overnight, while other variations, such as Chicken 65, use yoghurt to sauce the chicken after it's fried. Find Chicken 65 at Aangan in West Footscray or one of Chilli India's locations, and or try Indian fried chicken at Daughter In Law.
Spices including lemongrass, galangal and turmeric give Indonesian fried chicken its big flavour. Visit Colonial Cafe in Doncaster, D'Penyetz in Carlton or Yoi in the CBD to find ayam goreng and variations of.
Chicken karaage is a staple of the izakaya (Japan's answer to a pub) for its ability to stand up to a solid drinking session. Sake and soy are the chief flavours, while potato starch and double-frying (sometimes triple) create an ultra-crisp bite.
The king of Melbourne's fried chicken scene, known for its light batter and array of glazes. Restaurants are dotted all over town, with Sam Sam, NeNe, Gami and Pelicana some of the big names.
A dish with roots in the American South, refined by slave cooks and Black women entrepreneurs. Birds are most often jointed, brined in buttermilk, then coated and fried. Melbourne purveyors include Le Bon Ton in Collingwood, South Yarra bar Leonard's House of Love, and Brunswick's Juanita Peaches.
The brick-red colour tells you all you need to know: this chicken is hot with a capital H. The blistering spice mix is usually a closely guarded secret but cayenne pepper is essential. Head to Belles in Fitzroy or Geelong's Hot Chicken Project for some of the best.
As Melbourne as AFL. Find it at just about any pub.
With David Matthews