The world’s surprising fried chicken capital

Then there’s Takae Tateishi, one of the rare female karaage shop owners whose spot, Kokko-ya, is arguably the most unique in the city with her salt-rice-malt marinade and desire to do everything from scratch. “What I can say with confidence is that I carefully remove the extra fat from the chicken. I’m absolutely confident in how I prepare the meat,” said Tateishi, whose chicken has a softer texture and spicier flavour that fires up your mouth.

And then there’s Kouji Moriyama, whose shop Moriyama was the first ever champion of the Karaage Grand Prix and is the nephew of Nakatsu karaage’s founding father, Shoji Moriyama. He makes a salt-based crispy karaage that erupts with juices from every bite and has a mix of undisclosed fruits that infuses his chicken with exceptional flavours.

But karaage isn’t just something to eat in Nakatsu, it’s an entire identity. Every autumn, there’s Karafes, a karaage festival which attracts upwards of 50,000 people from around Japan and the world, and nearly every shop participates to drum up popularity for the city. The town also holds a Guinness World Record for the largest serving of fried chicken topping out at 1,667.301kg (3,675lb, 12oz) that was set in 2019.

Of those 40-plus shops in Nakatsu, everyone in the city has their personal favourite. It reminds them of their childhood. It’s a food that rose out of poverty, fed a starving island and became a savoury symbol that can now be found at weddings, birthdays and major celebrations including Christmas when millions of Japanese eat fried chicken. And the Karaage Grand Prix is their way to prove that this lineage makes their city the beating heart of fried chicken in Japan.

The Karaage Grand Prix started in Tokyo in 2010 as a national competition to rank karaage and promote the tasty treat around the country. Up until 2022, voting was entirely online and the most popular karaage shops typically won all the awards. According to Kouichiro Yagi of the Japan Karaage Association, “[in 2023] a taste test by the judges will be included to further improve the value of the awards.”

The judges will base their decisions on the frying colour, the batter, the harmony between the meat and the batter, the juiciness, the flavour, the cost effectiveness (how much you get for the price), and the temperature level (too much heat can cause burns).

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