SINGAPORE: There have been several fried chicken trends in Singapore since the first fast-food fried chicken chain, KFC, opened in 1977.
There was ayam penyet (Indonesian smashed fried chicken) from around 2007, Korean fried chicken from around 2010 and gourmet fried chicken from around 2017, said food writer Annette Tan. The result is a “nice variety of fried chicken” available.
Eateries specialising in fried chicken that have opened in recent years include Birdfolks and Arnold’s. It is also among the top orders on food delivery platforms foodpanda and GrabFood. These days, one can even have it with ice cream.
So it sounded like a foodie’s dream assignment to tuck into fried chicken daily for a fortnight. After a similar experiment with bubble tea, Talking Point host Steven Chia took up this challenge befitting Colonel Harland Sanders himself.
WATCH: Ate fried chicken for 14 days — but would I try going vegetarian? (8:10)
Along the way, he found out why fried chicken is irresistible to Singaporeans, the health effects of bingeing on the dish, and ways to make it more palatable to consumers watching their cholesterol and waistlines.
INVADING THE SENSES
Eating fried chicken is a sensory experience, said chef Sameer Chablani, who was a cashier and one of the kitchen staff members at KFC when he was only 14 years old.
There is the smell that entices customers before they enter the outlets, as well as the sight and sound of others biting into the batter. “Before you even get to the taste … your mind’s been made up,” he said.
Effective marketing, such as the launch of limited edition flavours, also keeps customers coming back. According to Chiara Ang, a senior writer and host at food site EatBook, audio marketing is an “up-and-coming” tactic.
Brands may engage “mukbangers” — people who consume large amounts of food while interacting with online audiences — to eat platters of fried chicken.
Their videos are not complete without that crunch of teeth sinking into the chicken as the vloggers move closer to the microphone.
For his part, Chia initially felt himself getting hooked on fried chicken. But the passion wore off by the latter half of his experiment.
The grease made him feel tired, and his physician, Philip Koh of Healthway Medical (Tampines), found that his cholesterol levels had gone up 5 to 6 per cent by the end of the fortnight.
WATCH: Fried chicken mukbang taste test by Steven & kids + Tips to make it more crispy (7:29)
Bad cholesterol can clog up the arteries and increase the risk of a heart attack or stroke. If Chia should continue on this diet for months or longer, he would be a contender for premature heart attack.
Eating fried chicken daily is “definitely too much”, said Koh, who added that one must also eat fruits and vegetables and exercise. He had given the green light for the two-week challenge only because of Chia’s low cardiovascular risk.
HEALTHIER BUT LESS AFFORDABLE
So what is in the fried chicken from the food chains? With the help of a laboratory, Talking Point tested various brands of American-, Korean- and Taiwanese-style fried chicken for monosodium glutamate (MSG), sodium and fat.
It found American-style chicken to be lower in all three components, while Taiwanese-style chicken came top in MSG and sodium content.
WATCH: The first episode in full — Our love for fried chicken: What makes it so irresistible? (23:48)
Paired with fries, mashed potatoes and ketchup, a fried chicken meal could “easily” exceed half of one’s recommended maximum sodium intake of 2,000 milligrammes a day, said National University of Singapore senior lecturer in food science and technology Leong Lai Peng.
Too much sodium can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke.
If people are unable to give up fried chicken entirely, there are ways to make it less unhealthy. They could use oil that contains more monounsaturated fat, such as extra light olive oil and canola oil, said Raffles Medical Group principal dietitian Bibi Chia.
The frying temperature should typically range between 160 and 190 degrees Celsius, as the meat absorbs more oil at lower temperatures. Consumers should ensure also that their chicken’s internal temperature is 80 degrees Celsius, so that the meat is cooked properly.
A thinner batter would absorb less oil, the dietitian added.
With chef Chablani’s help, Chia came up with a recipe that had less salt, more herbs and spices and significantly less oil using an air fryer.
But such a method would jack up the cost of a two-piece chicken meal to about S$15, double the price at a fast-food chain.
This is due to economies of scale — the air fryer can produce only “three to four pieces” every 15 to 20 minutes, and it is impossible to cook “too far in advance”, Chablani said.
At a tasting event that marked the finale to Chia’s fried chicken odyssey, 16 guests tried the healthier recipe, but only five said they would be willing to pay S$15 for his dish.
WATCH: The second episode in full — For the love of fried chicken: Can it be healthier? (22:13)
“I guess it’s hard to give up the inexpensive, accessible and tasty fried chicken as we know it,” he concluded.
“But in the long run, it would actually be better for our health. So if more of us do show an interest … we just might see more healthier and affordable options available.”