by Sumi Hahn
photos by Lara Ferroni
Imagine the tallest Japanese woman you’ve ever seen (almost six feet tall in socks). Then endow her with the capacity to match a rugby player beer for beer—while frying the most finger-lickin’ chicken karaage you could possibly imagine.
The resulting image would be Megumi Ijiri Haskin, author, blogger,Medina mom. No one cooks karaage—Japanese fried chicken—quite like she does. In fact, even Megumi herself can’t really explain it.
“I’m not a chef, so I don’t do recipes,” she replies, when I request one. “I just…do it,” she says, at a rare loss for words. Her answer is actually more reassuring than not.
For a home cook, fried chicken—karaage included—is one of the ultimate badges of honor. Like all kitchen classics—pie, gravy, soup, bread—the best fried chicken is borne of intuition, taste, and hard-earned know-how, ingredients that are impossible to quantify. If there are secrets to be shared, most home cooks will gladly share them, because they know that the ultimate trick, experience, can’t be given away.
“The secret is potato starch,” Megumi says in a dramatic whisper. “You have to use katakuriko.” She shows me the bag. “I use the good stuff, fromHokkaido island, which is famous for their potatoes.” The label on the bag has a red border and a frieze of green leaves surrounding a block of black Japanese lettering. On the back, a tiny label in English reads Hokuren katakuriko.
“Using potato starch is more high-end,” explains Megumi. “The texture is more flaky and delicate. When you eat out locally, the karaage is browner, because it’s made with flour. I use all potato starch, so it looks pretty and light.”
A writer, Megumi used to work at a major ad agency inTokyo, producing copy for TV commercials. “I never learned how to cook, but I ate out a lot. The production company would take us to the best restaurants whenever we were on location. Paris, Guam,Hong Kong, everywhere.”
She gave up the glamorous life to move to the States with her husband. “After I came here, I tried to make those same dishes, on a budget. I would think: How do I do that? And I would recreate those tastes. I just copy what I remember.”
She reaches into the fridge and pulls out the container with the chicken. “I use thigh meat—that’s another secret. The meat is softer and tastier. I marinate overnight, but when I don’t have time, I start in the morning. Last night I tried to measure everything, to give you a recipe. It felt so uncomfortable! I’m not that kind of person. Normally I just grind ginger, garlic, put in soy sauce and taste.”
Megumi takes out the oil. “I don’t like technology,” she says, indicating her battered wok. “I do everything the old-fashioned way.” She turns up the flame. I pay close attention: Frying is all about timing. A perfectly good batter can be ruined by frying too soon in oil too cool, or frying too late in oil too hot. She dredges a dozen pieces of chicken in the potato starch before placing them, one by one, into the bubbling heat.
Looking puzzled, she walks around her uncharacteristically clean kitchen (her epic feasts usually leave behind a kitchen resembling a natural disaster). She laughs when she realizes what she’s forgotten. “I normally drink while I cook,” she says, pulling open the door to the fridge. She roots around and pulls out a Redhook ESB.
She takes sips while she chats about her next big venture. A prolific writer, she’s published two books of humorous autobiographical essays inJapan: “What’s Wrong with being Big?” and “What’s Wrong with being Fat?” Imagine Rosie O’Donnell as a Japanese writer—that’s how her husband John describes her humor. The first book chronicles how she met him. The second one, she says, “is about my American life, after I gained 30 pounds.”
“I’m going to add cooking segments to my blog,” she declares. GoFeisty.com offers tips to Japanese woman on living life with a feisty attitude—something Megumi does with consummate ease. While she animatedly talks about her plans, she drinks her beer and keeps an eye on the bobbing chicken pieces, giving them an occasional poke.
Suddenly, she dives in with her chopsticks. “Normal people use longer chopsticks, but I’m a tough woman, so I don’t care,” she says, with her fingers just millimeters from the oil. She pulls out the chicken, which is crisp and golden, with fluffy white patches. How long does she fry them? Her eye opens wide in wonder. “I don’t know. I just cook them until they look done.” She dredges the second batch, and we set a timer.
Ever the considerate hostess, Megumi starts mixing a bowl of rice with goma yukari (dried red plum), to pair with the karaage. “Chicken karaage is party food, kid food, bar food. It’s also perfect for packing as a typical okazu, or lunchbox side dish. It makes a happy, happy lunch.”
We munch on the chicken, which bursts with deliciousness. “I use a lot of soy sauce and garlic, so the flavor is strong,” she says apologetically, even though there is nothing to apologize for. “But that’s my personality. I don’t like wimpy flavors. I like spicy and tasty food. I call it feisty cooking—my way of cooking.”
For Megumi’s recipe for Fiesty Chicken Karaage, click here