There are many schools of thought for making the perfect fried chicken, but if you’re looking for skin that is crispy and crackly, as opposed to thick and bready, look no further than Hat Yai, a popular fried chicken dish sold by street vendors in Southern Thailand.
Hat Yai chicken originated from the Southern Thai city by the same name, but it’s not hard to see why the dish has traveled as far as Portland, Oregon and beyond. The chicken typically marinates in an explosive combination of aromatics—including garlic, cilantro stems, soy sauce, white pepper, and often cumin—and is served topped with fried shallots, often alongside sticky rice. But Hat Yai chicken’s shattering skin is the most memorable hallmark. The secret ingredient? Rice flour.
Rice flour is often used in fried dishes in Asia. Think Japanese tempura or Korean fried chicken. In all cases, including in the Southern Thai street food known as Hat Yai, the rice flour creates a crispy crust that doesn’t taste greasy or feel weighty like some fried chicken skin can. That’s because rice flour doesn’t absorb as much oil as wheat flour. It’s the perfect way to achieve a lighter, dryer, and perfectly crispy crust.
Some recipes for Southern Thai fried chicken call for mixing cornstarch in with the rice flour. Cornstarch blocks the formation of gluten and results in that audibly crunchy texture. In addition to using cornstarch and rice flour, the chefs at Portland, Oregon’s Hat Yai Restaurant add tapioca flour into the mix to create a crust that stays crunchy for an extra long time. But many recipes call for rice flour only, and if you’re never fried using this neutral, fine flour, you’ll be amazed at the drier, crisper exterior it yields.
Why White Rice Flour is Best for Frying
Now, if you’re really in-the-know on rice flour, you may be wondering, “What kind should I use for frying? White, brown, or glutinous rice flour?” The quick answer is: use white rice flour for fried chicken. But let’s back up.
How it’s made: White flour is made by grinding kernels of long-grain white rice, brown by grinding kernels of long-grain brown rice, and glutinous by grinding cooked and dehydrated glutinous rice, otherwise known as sticky rice or sweet rice.
How to use it: White rice flour is best for light batters like tempura and your head-turning fried chicken. Brown rice is best for thickening dishes like soups and stews, although white and glutinous rice flour can also be used as a thickening agent. Glutinous rice flour, which has a higher starch content than white and brown rice, is a powerful thickening agent and often used in desserts like mochi.
A Couple Pointers for Frying with Rice Flour
- Rice flour is finer than conventional wheat flour, which also means it browns faster. So it’s best to fry small pieces of chicken (or whatever you’re frying) that don’t require as much cooking time. The longer the food cooks in the oil, the darker the skin will get. For perfectly golden results, use chicken wings or drumsticks, or cut larger thighs or breasts in half.
- If you’re really committed to crispy skin, dredge the chicken in the rice flour once and let it sit for 10 minutes. Then dredge it again before shaking off excess flour and tossing it in the oil.
Bonus: Using rice flour instead of wheat flour makes for fried chicken that’s gluten-free. Just be sure to use gluten-free soy sauce if you’re following the traditional Hat Yai marinade.
Tips for Frying
Once you’re on board with rice flour, be sure to follow these tips for frying:
- Don’t overcrowd the chicken. Make sure there’s plenty of space for each piece of chicken to fry.
- Make sure the oil remains above 350° F degrees when you’re frying. If you’re frying in batches (which you should be—see tip #1), then you may need to let the temperature climb back up between batches.
- Season the chicken and shallots with salt immediately after removing from the oil and placing on a wire rack.
- If you’re making traditional Hat Yai chicken and frying up some shallots, make sure the shallots don’t burn in the same oil where you’re cooking the chicken. You can use the same oil, but just make sure to either fry the shallots after the chicken, or, if you fry them beforehand, have a skimmer that can collect all the shallots once they cook. You don’t want leftover shallots hanging out in the oil and burning to a crisp. Otherwise your chicken may take on a less-than-pleasing burnt flavor.