On fried chicken

During February’s rains, a tent city emerged from the damp cement roof of Pretoria’s central post office: a buzzing metropolis of metal poles, canvas, gaffer tape and tripods.

For nearly eight months, the corner of Madiba and Palace Streets became home to thousands of satellite engineers, photographers, fixers and correspondents, who spent their year covering a never-ending celebrity murder trial.

Who was to feed them all?

Behind the BBC’s prime real estate, candy-striped PVC rose from the pavement, exhaust fans all a-whir.

Fried chicken: the sustenance of good journalism, so one enterprising Dros Fried Chicken franchisee thought.

It proved popular with schoolchildren, peckish after their autograph-imploring screams. The foreign reporting hordes mostly wrinkled their noses and headed for the fried chicken salad (on iceberg, more socially acceptable) at Tribeca, down the road.

What makes your chicken special? I asked Eckhart, a broad man in a broad Dros-red golf shirt.

He paused to consider with furrowed brow.

Is it free range? Organic? South African? I pursued.

“It’s, um, frozen,” Eckhart looked pensive.

Rows of fried chicken pieces - breaded on site with an egg wash - sat on pyrex in a little glass fronted warming cabinet, as if Colonel Sanders’s tannie had donned a hair net and opened a food truck.

I ordered a thigh, which came with half a Parson’s nose. As I passed the Sky News tent, telltale carton in hand, Jeremy Thompson appeared, eyebrows raised.

“You’re a brave woman,” he told me.

“‘Dross’ comes from Old English,” Jeremy went on, reading from his iPhone in Television Voice, “It means the scum that forms on the surface of molten metal. Waste… An impurity. Something base, trivial, or inferior.”

“That’s dross, why would you eat it?” he cocked his head.

I laughed nervously.

The thigh tasted remarkably like KFC, for all its lack of secret recipe, yet slightly less crisp, oil oozing from every crevice: more wholesomely real, yet disappointing in its execution, like the boring second cousin you never want to sit next to at Christmas.

By way of comparison, I stopped at Chicken Licken, en route to the Gautrain, to purchase my first ever hot wings in a greasy paper bag.

A young-faced police officer slid in next to me at the station Vida, eyeing my snack. “Those are the best,” he declared.

I asked uniformed George why.

“Because they’re hot. And they’re wings,” he stared at me.

I pulled off a deep fried feather from a boxer drumstick bicep.

Fozi, the earnest franchisee, had followed me to the station, to assure me that her wings “most certainly” don’t come from battery hens. Nothing can match them, she insisted.

To get them perfectly crisp, the temperature has to be exactly right, she explained, twisting an imaginary dial.

Yet for all Fozi’s efforts, the wings lacked crunch. Intensely salty, overwhelmed by white pepper, and a sprinkling of MSG. My tongue tingled with the acidity of a thousand E numbers.

Fried chicken, it seems, was always to be part of my destiny.

Aged eight, I became the Malaysian face of the Kentucky Fried Chicken drumstick.

I remember the searing lights, the towering bucket of chicken camera left, my palms going wrinkly from gripping leg after poultry leg, trying to look cute while taking a bite - something far more difficult than one imagines.

Aged thirteen and three-quarters, I got my first job, at a KFC on the side of a West Australian highway, where I wore a blue sun visor indoors and a plastic name badge indicating my name was “Sarah”. Sarah hadn’t liked it there, I was told.

There, the chicken arrived in enormous clear plastic bags, frozen pre-battered and deep-fryer ready, presumably to eliminate the chance of pimpled teenagers stealing the Colonel’s secret recipe.

It was precision cooking - oil heated to an exacting degree, mesh baskets fished out to beeping timers by the second - yet completely mindless.

I lasted three months, before my increasing despondency and deteriorating attention span led to an incident involving the chip warmer and quite a lot of blood.

Nearly two decades on, fried chicken remains strangely omnipresent, even democratising in its ubiquitousness, eaten from Sandton to Lusikisiki.

It is a dish that allows itself to be appropriated and transformed by anyone wielding a few litres of oil; reinvention with the reassurance that anything deep-fried must be delicious.

In Banda Aceh, the Sumatran town worst hit by 2004’s Indian Ocean tsunami, as hope and life returned, so too did a skinny singleted man with missing teeth, an enormous smile and his neon green bicycle stall: Aceh Fried Chicken, a ditch away from flattened devastation.

In Korea, they eat it with umami-bursting fermented soybean ganjang sauce and garlic. In India, Chennai’s “Chicken 65” is deep fried with chili powder, ginger, vinegar, mustard seeds and turmeric.

The Cantonese make their crispy chicken batterless, soaked in Chinese rice wine and five spice; in Japan, chicken karaage is smothered with potato starch and fried three times.

West Africa crisps theirs in palm oil, with the same spices that gave birth to America's Southern fried.

But, as is so often the case, the flavours we love the most are those most familiar; dim childhood recollections of culinary revelation.

Escaping Pretoria’s High Court, I found myself several weeks later in a Peranakan bungalow in my mother’s hometown. At a marble-topped table on cracked tiles, I ate inchi kabin with my fingers, searingly hot from the wok, crisp skin dissolving on my tongue, licking meat juice from my palm.

The meeting of Malayan flavour and Chinese sensibility, cultivated over generations of Nyonya cooking in Penang’s Georgetown, finds form in a chicken, rubbed with lemongrass, cloves, turmeric, cinnamon, cumin and fennel seeds, marinated in coconut milk and fried til its fragrance makes you heady. There's a colonial nod in its dipping sauce: Worcestershire, thinned with lime, sugar and floating chilli.

It is a dish hinting of silken embroidery, humid nights and spider lilies, of trysts and empathy, of how two cultures could come together and create something so exotic yet universally understood, that across the seas, it would find another dinner table licking its fingers too.

Dros Fried Chicken, www.drosfriedchicken.co.za
Chicken Licken, www.chickenlicken.co.za
Penang’s best inchi kabin at Perut Rumah, +60 4 227 9917, 17 Jalan Kelawai, Georgetown