The Unique Ingredient That Elevates Taiwanese Popcorn Chicken

Within the realm of Chinese cuisine lies Taiwanese food, a melting pot of local and international dishes that seem to be characterized by salty and sweet flavors, per Eater. Whether it's Szechuan meals with some serious heat or halal spots in Taipei, Taiwan offers something special for everyone – all with a side of tea, coffee, and/or rice, via Life of Taiwan.

One of these special helpings lies in the form of Taiwanese popcorn chicken, a popular item within the street food market. Upon first glance, one may notice a few aesthetic differences between regular ol' popcorn chicken and the Taiwanese stuff. First, the addition of Thai basil leaves adds elements of licorice, spice, and vibrant colors to the latter's batch of chicken (Thai basil can also handle high heat very well), as noted by MasterClass. Second, Taiwanese popcorn chicken is typically coated with some kind of seasoning mix, which may highlight the likes of hot paprika, salt, and ground peppercorns, via Wok and Kin.

While no two Taiwanese popcorn chicken recipes are the same, you may find Shaoxing rice wine, garlic, and oyster sauce in the ingredient list for heightened flavor profiles, per Seonk Young Longest, as well as the use of sweet potato flour for crispy chicken, via Carrington Farms. But if you're looking to "level up" your next batch, try adding this unique ingredient to your marinade mixture.

What is fermented bean curd?

Also known as fermented tofu or tofu cheese, fermented bean curd is a combination of tofu, salt, and rice wine, though other additions may be used to enhance flavors and colors, via The Woks of Life. Serious Eats notes that such flavors can either be spicy, tangy, and/or sweet depending on which country the fermented bean curd is made in, but you'll most certainly find a cream cheese-like consistency throughout most varieties.

So how does this enhance Taiwanese popcorn chicken? Well for starters, a separate Serious Eats source compares fermented tofu to the likes of fish sauce and anchovies. A spoonful to the mouth would likely yield a disgusted face, but when incorporated into other dishes, the flavors become complex and balanced. This is why it's best to add fermented tofu to the popcorn chicken marinade because the resulting fried chicken will take on elements of creaminess and umami notes.

Wok and Kin suggests white fermented bean curd instead of the red stuff, mashing it thoroughly into a paste before adding the rest of the marinade ingredients into it (per Seonk Young Longest). One or two cubes of fermented tofu are ideal, but if you're feeling skeptical, there's no shame in starting with just one. After your marinade is complete, just add in the chicken, and marinate for however long the recipe calls for (the latter source suggests two hours).