Inspired by Portuguese food, Chicken Nanban is fusion cuisine at its finest and one of Japan’s most popular ways to enjoy fried chicken. Bite-size pieces of crispy chicken, eggplant, and peppers are tossed in a tangy dressing for a flavor combination unlike any other.
Outside of a small region in southern Japan, Chicken Nanban (チキン南蛮) was once a relatively unknown dish that has since become one of the country’s most popular ways to enjoy fried chicken (karaage).
My version of this dish consists of succulent pieces of crispy fried chicken, eggplant (a must!), and bell peppers dressed in a tangy sauce. With freshly chopped shiso sprinkled on top for a finishing touch, the flavors and textures of this Chicken Nanban are unforgettable. Plus, the whole thing comes together in under an hour.
What is Chicken Nanban
The origin of the word “Nanban” (南蛮) sounds pejorative (translating literally to “southern barbarian” from the Chinese word “naanmaan”), but it became a term used in Japan to denote something foreign and highly desirable. When the first Europeans came to Japan in 1543, they arrived from Portugal and brought with them a long-lasting impression on some of Japan’s most popular food today. Castella Cake, Tempura, and Salmon Nanbanzuke are other examples of Portuguese-inspired Japanese dishes.
Chicken Nanban was created in a small town in the Miyazaki Prefecture of Kyushu, Japan’s southernmost island. Allegedly, it was a humble meal made for the staff of a local diner Nao-chan during the 1950s, and it quickly gained popularity as a menu item throughout Kyushu before finding its way around the rest of Japan.
Quick Overview of This Dish
- Flavor: The balance between tender bites of fried chicken, silky Japanese eggplant, bell pepper, and bright, tangy sauce is what leaves people wanting more! It’s a unique combination that everyone should try.
- Ease: Unlike some other Japanese recipes, there are few steps involved when making Chicken Nanban. Once your chicken and vegetables are cut to bite-sized pieces, it only takes a few minutes to fry each batch.
- Frying: When deep-frying anything, it’s essential to make sure your oil is at the right temperature. Too low, and your chicken and vegetables will feel saturated in oil; too high, and the outside will cook faster than the inside. I give an old Japanese trick on how to make sure the oil’s temperature is just right in my recipe below. For a more comprehensive guide on deep-frying food, read this post.
- Time: I allow around 15 minutes for prep time. The sauce takes less than one minute to mix together, and once the frying process begins, this dish can be made in 30 minutes. If you’re familiar with deep-frying, you know it’s a pretty quick process! Just be sure not to overcrowd the pan.
Nanban Sauce and Tartar Sauce
You may have come across other Chicken Nanban recipes that include tartar sauce. Although mainstream Chicken Nanban is served with both sweet and tangy nanban sauce and creamy tartar sauce these days, the original recipe served at Nao-chan did not, and still does not, come with tartar sauce.
There are countless variations of this dish, and I personally enjoy the richness of juicy chicken and vegetables with the light acidity of the Nanban sauce. If you’ve tried the Latin American dish escabeche, this is quite similar! If you like to serve with tartar sauce, here is my tartar sauce recipe.
Recipe Tips for Chicken Nanban
1. Use Chicken Thighs
In general, Japanese cooks tend to use dark meat when making karaage. I prefer using chicken thighs because the meat is juicy and tender, and when made right, it should never taste dry. Make sure to pat your chicken to remove as much excess moisture as possible before tossing with the salt, pepper, and garlic. This ensures that every part is well-seasoned.
2. Use Potato Starch for Batter
To give the chicken its signature crunch, we use potato starch/cornstarch in place of flour. This results in a lighter, crispier outer shell that holds in the moisture of the meat inside.
3. Use Rice Vinegar for Nanban Sauce
When making this three-ingredient sauce, don’t be deterred by the vinegar. I use rice vinegar because it’s milder in taste and not quite as acidic as other vinegars. The sweetness of this Nanban Sauce also helps cut the acidity and complements the fried foods well. You can easily adjust the ratio of soy sauce, rice vinegar, and sugar to your taste.
4. Marinate the Chicken While Hot
Once all your ingredients are out of the fryer (with excess oil shaken off), it’s important to toss your chicken and vegetables with the sauce immediately. This helps with the absorption of the sauce to ensure that every bite of your Chicken Nanban is well-balanced and delicious!
How To Enjoy Chicken Nanban
Chicken Nanban is typically enjoyed as a main dish to serve with rice and a side of soup. In this recipe, however, I gave it my own interpretation by serving the fried chicken and vegetables in mini bamboo skewers as a party appetizer or rather izakaya-style food. They make a fun item to enjoy with other finger food and cold beer/ sake.
Chicken Nanban (Fried Chicken with Soy Vinegar Dressing)
- 1 lb boneless, skinless chicken thighs (roughly 4-5 pieces)
- 3 cups neutral-flavored oil (vegetable, rice bran, canola, etc) (for deep-frying)
- ½ cup potato starch/cornstarch (add more if necessary)
- 1 Japanese/Chinese eggplant (5 oz, 142 g)
- 1 red bell pepper (5 oz, 142 g)
- 1 yellow bell pepper (5 oz, 142 g)
- 10 shiso leaves (perilla/ooba) (optional)
For Chicken Seasonings
- kosher/sea salt (I use Diamond Crystal; use half for table salt)
- freshly ground black pepper
- 1 tsp garlic powder
- Gather all the ingredients.
- Pat chicken dry with paper towels and cut into 1 ½ inch (3.8 cm) pieces. In a bowl, combine the chicken with the chicken seasonings and marinate until you finish preparing other ingredients.
- Cut the bell peppers into 1 ½ inch (3.8 cm) pieces.
- Slice the eggplant into ½ inch (1.3 cm) pieces and soak in water for a few minutes to prevent them from changing color and to remove astringency.
- In a small bowl, combine ingredients for Nanban Sauce and mix well together. Set aside.
- In a large skillet, heat ½ inch of oil over medium-high heat. Prepare potato/corn starch in a small bowl. Use paper towels to wipe extra water from vegetables to prevent oil splatter.
- When the oil is hot (it’s ready when you dip a chopstick in the oil and see bubbles around the chopstick), dredge the eggplant in potato starch/cornstarch and remove excess starch so the oil doesn't get dirty.
- Deep-fry the eggplant until light golden brown. Transfer it to a wire rack or a plate lined with a paper towel. Work in batches and do not crowd the pan. If you put too many pieces, the oil temperature will drop significantly and the ingredients will get soggy. When the eggplant is done, coat the bell peppers with potato starch/cornstarch and deep-fry. Then once bell peppers are done, move onto the chicken.
- Once you finish deep-frying, place the fried eggplant, bell pepper, and chicken in the Nanban Sauce and coat them well.
- This time, I served the 3 ingredients in a skewer, but feel free to serve on a plate. To garnish, cut the shiso leaves into julienned pieces and place them on top of the Chicken Nanban. Serve immediately.
- You can keep the leftovers in an airtight container and store in the refrigerator for 3 days and in the freezer for a month. Please note that the deep-fried foods get naturally soggy. Therefore, it's best to enjoy them right away.
Editor’s Note: The post was originally published on January 22, 2011 and the images were updated in August 2012. The blog content has been updated in January 2021.