It's good and bad to see fried chicken come into its glory over the past couple of years. One of the nice aspects of this has been the rise of various ethnic branches of the fried chicken family tree. So what's the bad? I don't know, just southern pride talking I guess (seeing articles about fried chicken in NYC bring this out of me for some reason... it's petty).
I've been eating fried chicken all of my life, as most people born in any southern state can probably say as well. My mom's fried chicken was very mediocre. That's not to say I didn't have access to great fried chicken, but it did put my on a career quest to constantly explore making a better version. Eating a huge piece of fried chicken from a street vendor in Taiwan a few years back gave me insight into a great cultural variation. The crust was great. Actually, the anatomical part favored by most of these guys was the airline chicken breast (a deboned breast, skin on, with the first wing bone still attached). The flavors were that of great fried chicken, but with a few spice nuances that let you know this was not the American variety. We had guessed this to be from a touch of 5 spice added in at some point. The crust was great. Not the typical starch blend, but probably something else... holding a great crunch long after frying and working excellently with the incredibly juicy meat inside. Textural synergy.
I tried my own take a week ago by making a 5 spice brine. This worked great for me. A fried brined chicken is a class act. If you like juicy chicken, then this is definitely a must try. Juice literally flew out from the crust upon my first bite (wear goggles). Although this was an excellent attempt, it wasn't quite there for Ming who had ingrained childhood memories of that particular flavor.
When going for authenticity, it helps to have a wife who can translate Chinese from internet pulled recipes. The initial marinade consisted of chopped garlic, egg, corn starch, sweet potato flour, white pepper salt, soy sauce, sugar, 5 spice, licorice root powder, white pepper powder, and rice wine (the Michui variety). This should sit for at least 3 hours before proceeding with the breading.
A word on sweet potato flour... This starch is amazing. Notice that this package says 'thick,' that is to say more coarse. This is what you want. Sweet potato flour is extremely hygroscopic, so you won't save much by sifting afterwards. In fact, it beads up so much that it resembles calcium chloride, and you won't have much luck passing that through a screen.
This recipe calls for a small amount of starch in the marinade, but I used it in several breading variations. Unlike with wheat flour, where frying should be done immediately after dredging sweet potato flour is better when you let it sit after dredging. This forms sort of a batter paste. I highly recommend experimenting with it.
Another strange ingredient (for fried chicken at least) was the licorice root powder. This works interesting well with the 5 spice and gives it a nice Asian flavor... not too much, but just enough to let you know this ain't grandma's fried chicken.
So we commenced with trying a few variations of dredge (with some whole bone-in pieces and some 'nuggets' cut from boneless thigh). The first batch was directly from the primary recipe and consisted of corn starch and cake flour mostly. This was ok, but I have gone down the cornstarch frying road many times in the past, and it's not ideal. A variation with 100% sweet potato flour worked great. It was crispy, but not to the obnoxious point that cornstarch is. It retains its crispiness for a long time afterwards (since fried chicken is truly best after sitting awhile, this is important). I also tried a mix of sweet potato flour and wheat cake flour. This gave a more texturally familiar crunch, but didn't have the long term crunch retention of pure sweet potato.
I was rough having to taste so much fried chicken, but I was willing to take the hit in the pursuit of a better bird.
A word on the salting... I've always been a major proponent of including salt in the dredge. It's only over the past couple of years that I've developed a great appreciation of after-salting. It's aesthetically nice, and as far as functionality goes the small localized explosions of saltiness work great with the crunch and flesh beneath (a nice symphony that comes to life only when you chew). Try after-seasoning with other spices or pepper powder if you want to kick up the spiciness.