Taiwanese popcorn chicken nuggets are probably my favorite kind of fried chicken.
They’re a super crunchy, deeply savory, absolutely addictive snack, and probably one of the best things to ever come out of Taiwan. The other best thing being boba tea, of course. I have many, many fond memories of late nights at boba tea places, munching on fried chicken, Taiwanese scallion pancake beef rolls and drinking boba tea.
There was even that one summer after college when my friends and I would hangout every night, playing mahjong into the wee hours of the morning. We were fueled by takeout bubble tea, beef rolls, Taiwanese popcorn chicken, and the pure joy of youth. We were all working in-between kind of jobs that we didn’t care about. All that mattered was our obsession with the clink of those green and white MJ tiles and snacks. The best snack of all being Taiwanese popcorn chicken of course!
What is Taiwanese popcorn chicken?
Taiwanese popcorn chicken is an addictive night market snack from Taiwan. Like all good street foods, it has made its way into the cultural fabric of Taiwan and is now served in restaurants in Taiwan and all over the world.
Just as with other extra crunchy deep fried chickens (Korean fried chicken, chicken karaage), Taiwanese fried chicken is twice-deep fried: first in a low temperature oil to cook through, then in a high heat oil to add crunch. As it comes out of the fryer, it’s tossed in a salt and pepper seasoning and garnished with deep fried basil leaves.
Oh, and of course I have to mention, these little nuggets also come supersized as GIANT Taiwanese crispy fried chicken cutlets. Those giant chicken steaks (sometimes bigger than your head!) are served either whole, in a bag, that you can hold onto and bite, or cut up into pieces that you can eat with skewers or chopsticks.
Taiwanese fried chicken ingredients
- Chicken – the main ingredient. Chicken thighs are best for juiciness and flavor. Most Taiwanese fried chicken is made from boneless skinless thighs.
- Light Soy Sauce – We need just a bit of light soy sauce for umami and salt. There are a bunch of recipes on the internet that have you marinating in a bunch of regular soy sauce, but if you do your chicken will end up super dark after frying. We just want a hint of soy, not too much. Our favorite brands of light soy sauce are Amoy, Pearl River, and Lee Kum Kee. You can find them either online or at the Asian grocery store.
- Starch – Here I used a combination of cornstarch and potato starch for a coating that was light and crisp. The kind of starch you use for your coating is pretty important. More on coatings further down.
- Five Spice Powder – This is what gives Taiwanese fried chicken it’s distinctive flavor. Five spice is a Chinese spice mix made up of star anise, cloves, cinnamon, Sichuan peppercorns, and fennel. You can find it at most grocery stores and online of course. All five spice powder mixes are different, so make sure you taste your fives spice and like it before using it.
- White Pepper – White pepper is the other distinct spice in Taiwanese fried chicken. It has a sharper, more floral note than regular pepper. Don’t skip out on it if you want the real deal.
- Thai Basil – Taiwanese chicken is almost always garnished with Thai basil that has been deep-fried. It adds a bit of earthy herb freshness to the whole dish. If you’re adverse to deep-frying herbs, you can just serve it fresh.
How to Make Taiwanese Fried Chicken
- Cut down your chicken: Start of with cutting the chicken into bite size pieces. Make sure you cut all your pieces the same size. You don’t want thin pieces because they tend to be drier, so try to make sure they are kind of chunky and thick.
- Marinate: From there you’ll want to marinate them in soy sauce, garlic, five spice, white pepper, and salt. It’s a pretty dry marinade so be sure to mix everything up evenly so that all the chicken pieces are coated. You want them to marinate for at least 30 minutes, ideally an hour. I like to leave them in a cool spot in the kitchen so the chicken can come up to room temp. This helps it cook more evenly and quickly instead of cooking it straight from the fridge. If you’re marinating overnight, just take the chicken out of the fridge a little bit before you’re going to cook.
- Coat the chicken: After the chicken has marinated, you want to coat it in the cornstarch/potato starch mix. You dont need to drain the marinade, since it’s pretty much a rub so just go ahead and toss the chicken in the starches, being sure to coat evenly.
- Fry: From there you can either deep-fry, air-fry, or oven-bake. The choice is yours!
- Toss: Toss the freshly fried chicken with the spice mix. This is a very important part to making your chicken authentic.
If you’re air-frying or oven baking, you’ll need to spray the chicken with some oil. We like to use a simple oil mister bottle that we got on amazon so we can just use whatever oil we have on hand. Make sure there’s a good coating of oil on the tops of the chicken so it browns evenly, otherwise you might end up with chicken that’s not as golden.
For deep-frying, we’re going to do a double deep fry: once at a low temperature to cook the chicken through and then again at a higher temperature to get the chicken extra crispy and golden brown. Some tips:
- Make sure you use a heavy bottomed deep pot to deep-fry.
- You want a lot of headspace so the oil doesn’t boil and bubble over.
- A kitchen thermometer is best, but if you don’t have one, you can check the temperature by putting wooden chopsticks into the oil. There should be a bunch of little bubbles that come out the end. The ones that come with your take out orders are perfect.
- Gently add some pieces of chicken into the pot, being sure not to crowd, and fry until lightly golden. Drain on a wire rack and then turn up the heat and deep fry again until crisp and deeply golden.
As an extra bit of flavor, you can deep fry the Thai basil. After all the chicken is done, turn the heat off – the residual heat in the oil is enough – and very carefully add dry Thai basil to the pot. It will immediately bubble and sizzle and steam so be extremely sure that you have enough space in your pot. Deep-frying basil only takes seconds so once it’s a bright green and crisp, remove it immediately and drain on a rack.
And now it’s time to dust with some extra deliciousness and serve your chicken. Mix up some five spice, salt, white pepper, black pepper, and garlic powder in a little bowl and then dust it on generously. Pop the fried basil on top. Boom! Delicious hot and golden Taiwanese fried chicken!
Which Taiwanese popcorn chicken is the best: deep-frying vs air-frying vs oven-baking
Here we are! I went ahead and prepared Taiwanese fried chicken three different ways to figure out which method was best. I knew which chicken nugget was which but Mike did a double blind taste test and these are the results – they will shock you!
Mike thought that all the chicken tasted kind of the same! He said that when hot, the differences were minimal. Once the chicken got cold – we’re talking like hours later – this is what he came up with:
- Deep-fried was the tastiest, probably because it had some extra flavor from deep-frying
- Air-fried was the crunchiest and crispiest
- Oven-baked was the juiciest
As for me I liked the deep-fried version best, period.
What is the best type of coating for Taiwanese popcorn chicken?
If you ever look closely at some Taiwanese fried chicken, you’ll notice that their coating looks different from fried chicken coated with flour. This is because they use a mix of cornstarch, potato starch, or sweet potato starch. The crust of Taiwanese fried chicken tends to be a bit powder-y with little balls of crunchiness. It’s not as golden as regular fried chicken because the starches used don’t brown up the same way. Starches tend to give a lighter, yet crisper coating because there’s no gluten in it.
Look for coarse potato/sweet potato starch for extra crunchy chicken. Coarse starch has slightly bigger granules that make the chicken even crunchier.
For the most authentic Taiwanese chicken you’re going to want to search for sweet potato starch. Other starches will work too, but sweet potato starch is the starch of choice. The best chefs often use a mix of starches (their ratios being trade secrets) for the perfect combination of crispy and crunchy.
First off, what is starch?
Starch is a white, tasteless powder made up of two molecules: amylose and amylopectin. When heated, the molecules cross link with each other to form a rigid, brittle network that holds its shape. This translates to a crispy, crunchy feeling when we eat it. Bonus, starch is gluten-free!
Sweet potato starch
This is the classic coating you’ll find on fried chicken in Taiwan. Sweet potato starch (红薯粉) is super popular in Chinese food for coating meats, making chewy mochi-like dessert balls, and of course, deep-frying. Sweet potato starch comes in regular and coarse ground. Coarse ground sweet potato starch is what you want for Taiwanese chicken. Its irregularly sized pieces give the coating a raggedy, craggy surface which ends up being crispier when deep fried. Sweet potato starch contains the highest percentage of amylose (30%) which makes it the crunchiest/crispiest of all the starches.
Cornstarch, made from corn kernels, is probably the most common starch for thickening sauces, baking, and coating things for frying. Its fairly high amylose (25-28%) makes it a really good choice for a deep fry coating. I always include it as the default choice for coating Asian fried chicken because it’s probably in your pantry already.
Potato starch, made from potatoes, has a fairly high amylose content (20-22%). It’s really easy to find at the grocery store so if you can’t get your hands on sweet potato starch a mix of cornstarch and potato starch will give you an acceptable facsimile. Note: potato starch is not the same as potato flour!
Coatings to avoid
Stay away from flour, rice flour, tapioca starch, and rice starch if you want a crispy crunchy crust that will stay crunchy.
What to eat with Taiwanese fried chicken
You can eat it on it’s own as a snack, serve it up with some fluffy white rice as a Taiwanese fried chicken bowl, enjoy it next to fried noodles or fried rice, or last but not least: serve with some green onion pancake beef rolls for an extra Taiwanese experience.
Taiwanese Popcorn Chicken
How to Make The Best Taiwanese Popcorn Chicken Three Ways: Baked, Air Fried, and Deep Fried
Salt and Pepper Mix
In a bowl, marinate the chicken in the garlic, soy sauce, five spice, garlic powder, white pepper, and salt for 30 minutes. If you are air frying or baking, add a 1/2 tablespoon oil to the marinade.
Lightly pat the chicken dry with paper towels. Place the cornstarch and potato starch in a bowl and, working in batches, toss and coat several pieces of chicken, making sure they are well coated. Alternatively, put the cornstarch and potato starch in a bag or container, add the chicken, and shake to coat. The chicken should be well coated and look fairly dry.
Prepare a wire cooling rack over a paper towel lined rimmed baking sheet. Heat up 2 – 2.5 inches of oil in a deep heavy bottomed pot until it reaches 325°F. It doesn’t need to be too deep, it depends on the size of your chicken. Use a pair of tongs to gently add a couple of pieces of chicken to the hot oil, being careful not to overcrowd. Fry in batches until lightly golden, about 1 1/2 minutes. Remove from the oil and let rest on your prepared wire rack. Repeat with the remaining chicken until all of it has been fried once.
Turn the heat up to 350°F and fry the chicken a second time around until deeply golden and crispy, another 1-2 minutes. Drain on the wire rack, sprinkle with the extra spice mix if desired, and enjoy immediately!
Lightly oil or use cooking spray on the air fryer basket. Place the coated pieces of chicken in the basket, with at least 1/4” of space in between pieces. Lightly spray the tops of the chicken with cooking spray. Cook at 400°F for 5 minutes, then flip and lightly spray with extra cooking spray. Cook for 5 more minutes at 400°F. If your pieces of chicken are large, you might need an extra minute or two. Let the chicken cool for 5 minutes, then air fry for an extra 5 minutes at 400°F to crisp it up.
Immediately remove from the air fryer basket and let rest on a wire rack. Sprinkle with the extra spice mix if desired and enjoy immediately!
Heat the oven to 450°F. Oil or use cooking spray to fully coat a wire rack in a foil lined baking sheet. Place the coated pieces of chicken on the rack, with at least 1/4” of space in between pieces. Lightly spray the tops of the chicken with cooking spray.
Bake for 20 minutes, then flip, lightly coat with extra cooking spray and bake for an extra 5 minutes. The pieces of chicken should be golden brown, crispy, and cooked through. Remove from the oven, sprinkle with the extra spice mix if desired and enjoy immediately!
You probably won’t use all the spice mix – dust and taste to see what level of extra salty peppery-ness you like.
Taiwanese Popcorn Chicken
Amount Per Serving
Calories 578 Calories from Fat 213
% Daily Value*
Saturated Fat 5.5g34%
* Percent Daily Values are based on a 2000 calorie diet.