Thursday, November 15, 2012

Taiwanese-Style Crispy Chicken with Basil and Pepper-Salt (Yan Su Ji)

A ubiquitous fast food sold by street vendors and/or in night markets throughout Taiwan, these fried chicken tenders are soooo amazingly crisp and flavorful! Mom likes to use pork or squid instead of chicken, and I believe there are even some vegetarian versions using mushrooms or potatoes. But the essential ingredients are typically a marinade of soy, garlic, rice wine, sugar and 5-spice powder for the meat, seafood, or veggies, potato starch for dredging, a salt-pepper seasoning, and fried basil leaves for garnish. I myself prefer using boneless, skinless chicken thighs and, instead of frying the basil leaves, I actually briefly stir fry them along with some sliced fresh red chiles and the crispy chicken just before serving. Great with steamed white rice on the side and some ice cold Taiwan beer.

2 lbs. boneless, skinless chicken thighs, trimmed of fat & cut into 1/2" x 2" slices.
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 tbsp. rice wine
1/4 tsp. 5 spice powder
1 tsp. sugar
1 tbsp. soy sauce
2 cups potato starch or potato flour
4 cups vegetable oil
2 cups fresh Taiwan or Thai basil leaves
3-4 red Jalapeno or Fresno chiles, seeded & sliced
1 tsp. roasted Szechuan pepper-salt

1. Trim the fat from the chicken thighs and slice into 1/2" x 2" pieces. Place in a bowl and marinate with the minced garlic, rice wine, 5-spice powder, sugar, and soy sauce. Cover & refrigerate for 30 minutes to an hour.

2. Heat 4 cups of oil in a wok or deep saute pan over medium high heat.

3. Place 2 cups of potato starch/flour in a shallow bowl or plate; dredge the chicken pieces in flour until well coated.

4. Add the chicken to the hot oil and fry for about 5 minutes or until lightly golden (do not overcrowd - fry in 2 or 3 batches at a time). Remove the cooked chicken to a paper towel-lined platter.

5. After all the chicken pieces have been fried, pour out all but 2 tsp. of oil from the pan. Heat over medium high heat, then add the sliced chiles and cook for 20-30 seconds. Add the fried chicken slices & basil and toss for another 20-30 seconds until well-combined. Season with 1 tsp. of pepper-salt and then remove the chicken to a serving dish.

6. Garnish with additional fresh basil and serve with steamed white rice.

2 lbs. boneless, skinless chicken thighs.

Marinate chicken slices with minced garlic, soy sauce, sugar, 5-spice powder, and rice wine.

Roasted Szechuan peppercorn-salt (from Penzey's), Shaohsing rice wine, soy sauce, and 5-spice powder.

Dredge the marinated chicken slices in the potato starch.

Fry the chicken in batches over medium high heat (about 5 minutes, or until slightly golden-brown).

Drain the chicken on paper towels.

Remove all but about 2 tsp. of oil from the pan. Saute the chiles about 20-30 seconds.

Add the chicken.

Stir in the basil and saute briefly until well-combined. Season with 1 tsp. of  pepper-salt.

You don't need a dipping sauce for these tenders - just serve with some steamed white rice. 


  1. Hello!
    I was searching for a Taiwanese dish with Zha Cai, and came across your blog. Great blog, by the way. I like the picture of all the ingredients for the dish. It helps to see the actual package or can of the items in the recipe, like Zha Cai in the can. Seen it in the store, but never knew it was Zha Cai.

    This chicken recipe looks delicious. I don't have a Pensey store near me. What can I substitute for the peppercorn salt?


    1. Hi there! Thanks for visiting my blog - I used to have such a hard time identifying certain Chinese ingredients, so I decided to photograph and post them with my recipes, in case somewhat didn't know what the heck jellyfish, agar agar, Zha Cai, lotus leaves, or any number of other unusual sounding ingredients might look like in the market. As for peppercorn salt, you can always make your own - the ratio is 2:1, two parts kosher or sea salt and 1 part Szechuan peppercorns. E.g., you can combine 2 tbsp. of kosher salt and 1 tbsp. of Szechuan peppercorns, place in a dry skillet over medium-low to low heat, and stir frequently with a spatula or wooden spoon until the mixture is fragrant, about 8-10 minutes. Take care not to burn the mixture. Remove from heat, let cool, and store in an airtight container. Happy cooking!

    2. Oh, and I forgot to mention, grind the peppercorn salt mixture using a mortar & pestle or a small spice/coffee grinder before using.

  2. I have had this recipe bookmarked for a long time and finally made it tonight - it turned out perfectly! I made it for my son, who is a picky eater. One of his favorite dishes at Chinese restaurants is the Salt and Pepper Pork, and this had the exact same flavorings. I didn't notice until after I made it that you recommended the Penzey's Szechuan Pepper Salt (which I have at home), and I actually used some Vietnamese Pepper Salt I had purchased at an Asian store, maybe 99 Ranch. No matter, this was an excellent recipe and we all loved how it turned out! Love your blog and all the unique homestyle recipes you share!

    1. Hi Nancy! I'm so very glad that you and your family enjoyed this recipe! This is based on one of my favorite "snack" foods that my mom used to make when I was a kid in Taiwan (she always used pork). Thanks for visiting my blog and hope you find more recipes here that you like - happy cooking!

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