Popcorn Chicken With Salted Egg Yolk Sauce (Xián Sū Jī, 咸酥鸡)

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Deranged/Genius Taiwanese Bar Food

In May of 2023, Double Chicken Please—a Manhattan bar started by Taiwanese-American mixologists GN Chan and Faye Chen—was named the best bar in North America. The bar’s signature cocktails, like the Mango Sticky Rice (mango rum, “sticky rice” pu’er tea, wakame, cold brew and coconut) and the Cold Pizza (blanco tequila, Parmesan cheese, burnt toast, tomato, basil, honey and egg white), are the starring attractions, but DCP’s tightly curated food menu, devised by Executive Chef Mark Chou, also delivers on the promise in their name: fantastic chicken. Specifically, they make Taiwanese fried chicken, which is served two ways: in sandwich form (very on trend) and as popcorn chicken (xián sū jī, 咸酥鸡), my personal favorite. 

Popcorn chicken has its roots in the famed night markets of Taiwan, where vendors entice passers-by with food engineered to be as fun and addictive as possible. Night market food isn’t dinner, it’s entertainment. One doesn’t fuss with napkins and bones; instead one grazes. So fried chicken becomes popcorn chicken: boneless, morsel-sized, tucked into a greasy paper bag and eaten lazily off the tip of a skewer. You can see why popcorn chicken makes a great bar snack. At Double Chicken Please, the popcorn chicken is a straight-shooting rendition dusted in white pepper and tossed with crispy basil leaves. But if you want, you can also add salted egg yolk sauce on the side! Now, this is a patently deranged idea. No double-fried chicken on earth needs to be made more decadent by being dipped in additional liquified embryonic fowl. But that’s exactly why this dish is genius.

Upon tasting the dish, I immediately loved the texture of that sauce. It was perfectly smooth, and it obediently hugged each craggy piece of chicken I swirled through it. It was salty, slightly tangy and dusted with a very fine, mild chili powder—all flavors that balanced well with the umami of the chicken. But as I was eating, I kept thinking that I wanted a stronger salted yolk flavor, including that kiss of sulfuric funk (IYKYK).

This popcorn chicken recipe is the result of that craving. It is inspired by DCP’s, but the sauce is dialed up a few notches. To do this, I pack in three whole salted yolks, and I also include coconut cream for additional aroma and depth, adding a tropical night market vibe.

Boiled salted eggs
Salted eggs have to be cooked before you can use their yolks in this sauce

A Quick Primer on Salted Egg Yolks

Salted egg yolk (xian danhuang, 咸蛋黄) refers to the yolk of a whole duck egg that has been salt-cured. This technique, which dates back to at least the 5th century, traditionally called for coating the eggs with salty clay or mud. These days, you can still buy mud-cured eggs in China, but water brines are more practical for the home cook. Over a span of about 30 days, the salt penetrates the shell, adding flavor and transforming the egg’s proteins. Uncooked salted eggs look almost gelatinous, but when hard boiled, the white of a salted egg sets firm yet silky, and the yolk takes on an oily, sandy texture. Salted duck eggs are popular across China, particularly in the paddy-rice growing regions where ducks help with weeding and pest control. (The flavor has also taken off in other parts of Asia in recent years.) In my home city of Nanjing, ducks or their eggs are eaten daily, in the humblest preparations and the most fanciful. To make your own salted duck eggs, check out my DIY Salted Duck Egg and Golden Sand Corn recipe.

A Note on Separating and Cooking the Yolks

Salted yolks need to be cooked before they can be used for sauce. There are two ways you can do this: The first option is to hard boil the eggs whole for 10 minutes and separate the yolks afterwards (reserve the whites to eat with congee!). The second is to separate the yolks from the whites with your hands or the shells while the eggs are still liquid (just like you would separate the yolks of a regular raw egg), then steam the yolks in a small bowl, set inside a steamer, for five minutes. However you do it, the yolks should be firm enough that you can mash them easily, but they should still have their deep golden hue.

salted egg yolks after boiling
Salted egg yolks from eggs boiled for 7, 8, 9 and 10 minutes (from left to right)

Making Vegetarian “Popcorn Chicken”

I also tested this dish with chunks of chicken-of-the-woods mushrooms (laetiporus sulphureus), which, when fresh, have a meaty texture that’s uncannily similar to chicken. I could not taste the difference between the chicken and mushroom versions of this dish—the vegetarian version still offers all of the deep fried and saucy pleasures of the original, so I cannot recommend it enough. This mushroom has no substitute (please don’t use hen of the woods, which is a wholly different mushroom), but if you are lucky enough to find “chickens” in season, you can keep them in the freezer for months.

For more fun chicken recipes, try Kathy’s Hainan Coconut Chicken Hotpot, Taylor’s Cold Noodles ft. Shredded Chicken, and our classic Sichuan Mouthwatering Chicken.

Popcorn Chicken with Salted Egg Yolk Sauce (Xián Sū Jī, 鹹酥雞)

By: Zoe Yang and Iris Zhao

Ingredients 

For the Chicken Marinade

  • 1 pound boneless chicken thighs
  • 1 tablespoon light soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground white pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon five spice powder

For the Salted Egg Yolk Sauce

  • 1/3 cup coconut cream
  • 3 cooked salted duck egg yolks (see cooking instructions in text above)
  • 1/2 teaspoon rice vinegar
  • 1/2 teaspoon white miso
  • 2 pinches fine, mild red chile powder, such as gochugaru

For the Batter

  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon five spice powder

For the Dredge

  • 1 cup sweet potato starch
  • 1 tablespoon sticky rice flour

For Frying and Finishing

  • 3 cups vegetable oil, such as Canola
  • 1 bunch Thai basil (optional)

Instructions 

Marinate the Chicken

  • Chop chicken into large bite-size chunks, about 1 inch by 1 inch. (Craggy and uneven is OK!) Place chicken pieces in a bowl and add the soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, garlic, kosher salt, white pepper, ginger and five spice powder. Mix well and marinate in the fridge, covered, for a minimum of one hour and up to overnight.

Make the Salted Egg Yolk Sauce

  • Combine the coconut cream, cooked salted yolks, rice vinegar, miso and chile powder in a food processor and whiz until smooth. The sauce can be made the day before and stored covered in the fridge; revive it by bringing to room temperature and whisking to fluff up.

Batter and Fry the Chicken

  • Take chicken out of the fridge and drain away any excess liquid, then gently pat dry. Add the flour, cornstarch, baking powder and five spice powder to a bowl, then slowly drizzle in a little water while mixing until the batter can form a thin, unbroken stream when drizzled from a spoon. In a separate shallow dish, sift together the sweet potato starch and the sticky rice flour.
  • Bring the oil up to 300℉ in a wok or deep fryer. Using separate tongs for the wet batter and the starch, and working as neatly as possible, roll the chicken pieces in batter and then in the starch mixture, then put them in the oil. Work in batches, making sure not to add the pieces too fast or crowd the pot, or the oil temperature will drop too much. Fry each batch for about five minutes, or until the surface of each piece of chicken reaches a pale yellow color. Remove the chicken with a strainer and set the pieces on a rack.
  • When all the chicken has been fried once, bring the oil up to 400℉ degrees, then add chicken pieces back to the oil, in batches, frying for another minute or so to add color and crisp everything up. Once the chicken takes on a bronze hue, remove it from oil and set on a rack to let excess oil drain.
  • When all the chicken is fried, add basil leaves to the oil (if using) and fry until they’re twisted and shatteringly crispy. Lightly toss the fried chicken in a bowl with the fried basil and a sprinkling of white pepper. For the best experience, serve the chicken hot in a parchment-lined basket with skewers or toothpicks.

Tried this recipe?

About Zoe Yang and Iris Zhao

Zoe Yang is a Brooklyn-based writer and recipe developer. She was born, raised and culinarily trained in Nanjing, China. Iris Zhao, her mother, is a retired schoolteacher living in Boston who immigrated from Nanjing in the ’90s. Iris taught herself how to make a lot of Jiangnan classics—even the difficult ones—from scratch when she landed Stateside, and she passed that love of culinary discovery on to Zoe. Together they are sharing mother-daughter recipes from southeast China for The Mala Market. Zoe’s recipes and writing can also be found on Bon Appetit, TheKitchn.com and her personal site: www.zoeyijingyang.com.

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