An after-school snack that tastes like teenage freedom
This post originally appeared on July 2, 2022, in Stephanie Wu’s newsletter, “From the Editor,” a roundup of the most vital news and stories in the food world. Read the archives and subscribe now.
The place where I fell in love with fried chicken doesn’t exist anymore. It was a tiny street stand about a 10-minute walk from my high school in Taipei, with space for a single person to take orders and work the fryers. As far as I know, it never had a name; we just referred to it as “the fried chicken place.” If more clarification was needed, we would say it was behind the McDonald’s.
It served, among other things, Taiwanese fried chicken — bite-sized, boneless pieces of chicken thigh coated in tapioca starch and topped with white pepper and other spices. Better known as yan su ji, which translates to “salty, crispy chicken,” it’s widely accepted that the snack originated at Taiwan’s night markets. I have no idea what the stand’s hours were, but we always found the vendor there after school, standing over vats of hot oil and frying snacks to order — squid, fish cake, and more, usually accompanied with a handful of basil for an extra kick.
For a teenager, there’s no freedom quite like using your own money to buy food you actually want to eat. My friends and I grew up juggling our Taiwanese and American identities, and it felt grown-up, in a good way, to have a go-to spot, to order something so rooted in Taiwanese culture that was also universally appealing.
The chicken, which was always salty and crunchy and piping hot, was my favorite. I’d take my paper bag, slightly damp from the heat coming off the meat, and try my best to wait until it had cooled down a bit before digging in. As with all street stands, the snack was served with a few thin wooden skewers for spearing the chicken, which you could pass out to others so they could grab as many as they pleased. That was the beauty of yan su ji — in Taipei’s frenetic culture, it was a street food made for sharing, for sampling, for eating while shopping and gossiping and soaking in that blissful age where your metabolism can handle endless snacks before dinner.
I feel lucky that yan su ji made its way to the States, where it’s often referred to as Taiwanese popcorn chicken and is a common shareable appetizer at Taiwanese restaurants. But I still prefer mine on the go, and when the mood strikes, I head to Vivi Bubble Tea, a national chain that serves a limited menu of snacks, including yan su ji. The tapioca starch on the chicken pairs brilliantly with bubble tea, since the chewy, slightly gelatinous consistency of the boba and the airy crunch of the chicken play off each other. It never fails to bring me back to my 14-year-old self, on the brink of adulthood, jingling coins in my pocket while waiting for my after-school snack.