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Best Trader Joe’s Frozen Chicken (It’s Not Mandarin Orange)

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Some of my happiest memories of visiting friends in Kobe, Japan, revolve around going out with my Japanese friends and nibbling drinking snacks at izakayas, bars that often happen to have excellent food. My favorite dish of the lot is karaage (pronounced ‘ka-ra-ah-geh’). It’s a minimalist dish — just dark meat chicken chunks marinated in mirin and soy sauce, dredged in potato starch or flour, and deep-fried. It is the perfect accompaniment to a cold Sapporo beer; it’s also great cold tucked in bento boxes or as a simple dinner alongside salad and rice.

While making your own karaage from scratch isn’t rocket science, I don’t love frying anything at home (there’s that conundrum about what to do with the used oil … and the odor), and getting the subtle marinade flavors just right can be a little tricky. That’s why I was thrilled to find my favorite frozen karaage at Trader Joe’s, and even more thrilled to discover it lives up to my memories of the crispy chicken nibbles I’ve enjoyed in Japan.  

What’s So Great About Trader Joe’s Chicken Karaage?

The first thing you notice about TJ’s karaage is the crunch. The grocer manages to make a product that’s got a truly crispy coating. Whether you air fry or bake it, the pieces turn out golden-brown and crisp with tender chunks of chicken within. 

The crispness is especially important with karaage because it’s normally served with lemon wedges that you squeeze over the chicken. The juice would make a lesser breaded chicken nugget soggy, but TJ’s karaage stays miraculously crispy. It’s admittedly a bit more batter than most of the karaage I’ve had in Japan, but it serves the purpose of keeping it crispy.

TJ’s karaage is made with whole chunks of thigh and drumstick meat that stay juicy and have more flavor than breast meat when cooked. As for the flavor, TJ’s nailed the marinade here. According to the ingredient list, it’s a mix of mirin (sweet rice wine), white wine vinegar, ginger, and garlic. The result is a subtle, salty/sweet flavor that enhances the flavor of the chicken.

The dish is often served with a mayonnaise-based dipping sauce in Japan, and TJ’s got the memo. The 18.97-ounce bag comes with a packet of eggy mayonnaise made with salted egg yolk and malt vinegar, so it’s much richer than standard American mayo (think: Kewpie mayonnaise, but more luxurious).

What’s the Best Way to Use Trader Joe’s Chicken Karaage?

I usually bake the chicken and serve it on its own with the mayonnaise and a wedge of lemon. To make it a meal, I’ll flip on the rice cooker and either dress mixed greens with this gingery salad dressing, or just crack open a jar of kimchi, if I’m feeling really lazy. 

I’ve also found the chicken a handy option when I’m making ramen and don’t have another protein on hand — I just plop a handful of the chicken pieces on top, give it a sprinkle of shichimi togorashi, et voilà! Dinner. 

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