“Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii!” That’s “Kentucky for Christmas!” in Japanese. This unlikely marketing campaign was launched in 1974 in Japan and as a result, the Japanese still can’t seem to get enough KFC on Christmas Day.
It is estimated that only about 1% of the Japanese population is Christian, so celebrating Christmas isn’t a huge deal there, clearly. As such, in the early seventies, a group of foreign travelers who happened to be in Japan on Christmas had a hard time getting their hands on a turkey to cook. So instead, they cleverly opted for the next best thing: Kentucky Fried Chicken. Upon getting word of this, the company promptly launched its “Kentucky for Christmas” campaign and, perhaps a bit unpredictably, kicked off something that became a beloved annual tradition for much of the Japanese population.
My Kentucky Grandmother wasn’t what one might call, “a great cook.” But she didn’t really seem to ever strive for that nor care if anyone actually thought she was great. So, no matter really. In fact, I don’t think Mimi really cared what anyone thought of her. She was a beautifully feisty and spirited woman who always had at least one twinkle in her eye and a penchant for the Bourbon. As a girl who’d lived in central Kentucky her whole life, that is only normal – expected, really. Now, I’m not saying she was a bad cook, because that absolutely would be false. She could cook for sure, but she just never appeared to prioritize the activity above other things too often, opting instead to do what needed to be done, get on the table what needed to be got, and call it a day. She birthed and raised seven children so frankly, I don’t blame her one bit if she lost her lust for cookery at some point along the way. I would too, for that matter. Seven kids … sheesh.
But Mimi did have a few dishes that were great – no one else could touch them. One of them was Bagel Bites; the frozen, store-bought kind. We spent every Christmas Eve at Mimi’s home and did not, I’m here to report, ever have KFC for dinner, as the Japanese do. No, we had other delightful dishes from which to choose, some qualifying as traditional holiday fare, and some not (the Bagel Bites would fall into the “not”category). My Mimi would burn those little dears within an inch of their lives each and every time she served them to all of us grandkids and it became expected and such a topic of amusement. But it was the burned aspect of those things that made them great; great because it was her thing, and an amusing thing at that. Sometimes, one’s love for a certain dish or food is more a result of a fondness for the person fixing it than the dish’s actual taste. Such was the case with Mimi’s Bagel Bites. I’m not sure she ever actually knew they were burned on their little bottoms, no one ever told her. If that’s not love, I don’t know what is.
The other dish that she was known for was her fried chicken. Like I said, she lived in Kentucky so fried chicken was a mainstay on the tables of most families in the area at that time, as it still is today. I actually do not know the secret to her crispy, juicy fried chicken. I’m not sure if she had any tricks up her sleeves or special ingredients or methods that she employed to make it so good. I should have asked. Shame on me for not having asked. But I do know that when she made it, all of those kiddos came a runnin’ – all 14 legs worth of them. At least that’s what I’ve been told. I’m not sure what Mimi would think of my spicy blackened chicken and waffles recipe here, but I do bet that she’d tell me not to care what she (or anyone else) thinks about it.
Oh how I miss her.
Dark and menacing by design, this chicken has chile powder in both the dredge and the super spicy blackening paste that you shmear all over the pieces when they’re hot and fresh out of the pan. I only make the chicken at about 1/3 of the heat level of traditional Nashville Hot Chicken, but by all means, if you can take it, then feel free to add more cayenne you want. More power to you. I’m a bit of a hot chicken chicken, though, if you know what I mean. Still working on my tolerance …
Secondly, I make this recipe with boneless, skinless thighs and drumsticks, as they cook up beautifully and make for a very easy eating experience for all parties involved (kids, adults). However, you could use whatever type of chicken pieces you like, just make sure you cook the bone-in pieces a little longer and finish them off on a baking sheet in the oven for about 10 minutes to ensure they are done in the center.
One of the most delicious chicken recipes I’ve ever made, this chicken is just spicy enough to keep you coming back for more … and more … and more.
for the chicken:
Vegetable, canola or peanut oil for frying, plus 2 tablespoons for the paste
2 cups buttermilk
6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
6 chicken drumsticks
4 cups self-rising flour
1 teaspoon salt, plus extra for sprinkling
3 tablespoons chile powder, divided
1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
2 teaspoons chile powder (I use ancho chile powder)
1 teaspoon black pepper
chopped dill pickles, for serving
Place the chicken pieces in a large zip-top plastic bag and pour the buttermilk over top, coating the pieces. Place the chicken in the fridge to marinate overnight, or for a minimum of four hours.
Combine the flour and 2 tablespoons chile powder in a large bowl.
Pour oil in a large pot to a depth of about 2″ and heat to 350 degrees F. (I use a candy thermometer for this). Remove the chicken from the buttermilk and dredge the pieces in the flour, shaking off any excess before you fry.
Fry the chicken pieces in batches, doing like pieces at the same time (thighs with thighs, drumsticks with drumsticks etc.) and not crowding the pan, as this messes with the temperature and makes for uneven frying. Fry the chicken thighs for about 5 minutes, turning halfway through, until deep golden brown on both sides. Fry the drumsticks for about 5 minutes, turning hallway through, until deep golden brown on both sides. Transfer the fried chicken to baking sheets lines with paper towels for draining. Season with salt to taste.
Meanwhile, preheat your oven to 350 degrees.
Place a baking rack on another baking sheet and place the drained, bone-in chicken pieces on the rack (the drumsticks in my case). Place this chicken in the oven, and cook for an additional 10 minutes. Bone-in chicken takes a bit longer to cook and needs this extra time in the oven to ensure doneness. If you’re doing bone-in thighs and/or breasts, you’ll want to finish in the oven as well.
In a small bowl, combine two tablespoons of oil, the cayenne, 1 tablespoon chile powder, 1 teaspoon sugar, 1 teaspoon salt, and the black pepper. Stir to combine, creating a paste. When the fried chicken has drained and the pieces in the oven have fully cooked, brush this spicy paste onto the chicken pieces, ensuring that each piece gets a nice coating. Serve right away with the waffled hushpuppies, a generous amount of buttermilk sauce and plenty of dill pickles.
for the waffles:
1.5 cups self rising cornmeal
1/2 cup self-rising flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons salt
1 cup buttermilk
1 egg, beaten
1/2 small onion, diced
2 scallions, chopped
Combine the cornmeal, flour, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl. In a separate small bowl, combine the buttermilk and the beaten egg. Stir the egg mixture into the cornmeal mixture and add the onion and scallions. Mix just until combined.
In a sprayed and pre-heated waffle iron (I use a vegetable oil non-stick spray), pour about 1/2 cup (give or take) of hushpuppy batter into the center and cook until slightly crisp and golden brown, according to product instructions (waffle irons vary a little from brand to brand). You can make your waffles as big or small as you like. I managed to make 6 waffles, but you could do 12 small waffles if you prefer.
for the sauce:
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup buttermilk
1/2 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
1.5 teaspoons garlic powder
DIRECTIONS: Combine all ingredients and stir until well mixed. Refrigerate until needed.