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Fried and Tested: How K-drama’s Distinctive ‘Chikin’ has Gone Global

The success of the savory Korean fried-chicken snack can be credited to the country’s dramas

Debashree Dutta Jul 16, 2022

Photo: Courtesy of HanCinema; Crunchilicious

I wouldn’t be writing about Korean fried chicken if it wasn’t for Extreme Job, the runaway hit film. Although fried chicken is a mainstay in many K-dramas, this story, with its unusual twist, made all the difference to me. It explained why fried chicken chains made a fortune after the film’s release, while also popularising the already-famous ‘chikin’ (a range of fried chicken products) in South Korea like never before.

Photo: Courtesy of CJ ENM

The plot depicts a team of narcotics detectives led by Captain Ko (Ryu Seung-yong) on an incognito mission to take down a major drug cartel. When everything seems to be going smoothly, Ko receives word that their base, a chicken restaurant, will close shortly. While Ko and his associates plan to buy it and use it for their clandestine mission, their homemade rib marinade for sticky chicken becomes an instant hit, skyrocketing the eatery to overnight fame. A Pulse story reveals that the fried chicken dish in the movie was supplied by BHC Co., South Korea’s top fried chicken delivery franchiser. The ‘galbi’ (sweet soy sauce with a garlic flavor) seasoned fried chicken—one of their best-sellers—has seen substantial growth in sales since the film’s success.

This version, as well as other Korean fried chicken specialties such as “seasoned chicken,” “soy sauce chicken,” and “honey sauce chicken,” are not only popular among foodies but have also fuelled the global expansion of Korean restaurants. I see it in my city, Kolkata. Vishakha Roy Choudhury, owner and chef of Crunchilicious — a cloud kitchen — specializes in authentic Korean cuisine. She recalls how watching K-dramas and seeing characters try assorted fried chicken piqued her interest: “I explored a few local fried chicken joints, but none of them looked anything like those in the dramas, and that’s when I discovered Korean fried chicken isn’t like the others.” Well, I couldn’t agree more. It reminds me of Lee Dam’s (Lee Hye-ri) dialogue in the iconic scene from My Roommate is a Gumiho. “Fried chicken and beer can beat any kind of relationship,” remarked an ecstatic Lee after lapping up a jumbo platter of ‘chimaek’ — the combination of ‘chicken’ and ‘maekju’ (the Korean word for beer). According to a CNN Travel article, the drama My Love from the Star, where Cheon Song-yi (Jun Ji-hyun), the heroine, loves chimaek, actually sparked a chimaek festival in Ningbo, China, leading to long queues at Korean fried chicken shops.

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Although fried chicken gained momentum after Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) opened outlets in South Korea, I’d argue that Korean fried chicken has obscured KFC’s legacy by offering tender, juicy meat that’s perfectly seasoned with spices and sauces. But because that type isn’t available in our city, Vishakha says, “I decided to make my own. It took some time to master the perfect fried chicken, and after my friend’s grandmother [a native Korean] shared her skills for making it properly, I decided to launch my own Korean food business and introduced a range of authentic Korean fried chicken that my customers love.”

Romi Chatterjee, an architect residing in Los Angeles, describes how Korean dramas and Korean fried chicken spice up her otherwise dull and demanding lifestyle. “I binge-watch K-dramas in between spells of work, and my favorite snack is Korean fried chicken — deceptively simple but incredibly delicious.” She adds, “When I saw Crash Landing on You, I was so taken with its brilliant portrayal of Korean food that I started sampling it here. You won’t believe how many weekends I spent discovering new Korean food joints to explore Korean cuisine, notably fried chicken – it simply makes me feel better.”

Iman Chandra, a culinary arts student, is also a K-drama enthusiast. He remembers his first taste of Dakkangjeong (Korean fried chicken) as a “wow bite.” “I have to say, I’ve tasted a lot of other kinds of fried chicken. But the Korean version is really special — a cut above the rest. So, no matter how many times I visit my favorite Korean restaurant, I must order their fried chicken.”

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It is assumed that fried chicken has ties to Korean history. During the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s, laid-off workers started chicken outlets, increasing the number of fried chicken eateries. With time, a number of top fried chicken brands in Korea, such as Mexicana Chicken, Genesis BBQ, Kyochon Chicken and Pelicana Chicken, have expanded to establish new contingents in the United States, China, Canada, and Southeast Asia. Since then, and especially now with the surging Hallyu wave, creative product placements or in-film branding centered on Korean fried chicken have been on the rise.

In addition, Korean fried chicken has been heavily promoted in K-dramas, Korean variety shows, advertisements, streaming videos, social media memes, and other platforms. Do you remember IN THE SOOP with BTS episode seven? It includes the pop titans attempting to make fried chicken. That was one of my favorite episodes. In fact, I also enjoyed their Coconut Chicken ASMR video in which each member captivates us with the crackling, crunchy sound of biting into a satiating piece of fried chicken.

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