This Garlicky Soy Sauce-Glazed Fried Chicken Has Fed Generations
In 1974, Georgia Yi, a nursing major at Korea University, brought dakgangjeong, or fried chicken, that she bought at a restaurant to her boyfriend every other Sunday on her day off from the hospital. My dad's cousin Kyeongsuk Song, who was serving his compulsory military service in South Korea, loved fried chicken and looked forward to Georgia's visits to his army camp. He could eat a whole bird in one sitting and loved alternating between bites of crispy chicken and sweet-and-sour pickled radishes. The combination, to this day, makes his mouth water. It's also one of the many reasons he proposed to Georgia six years later.
A few months after Georgia and Kyeongsuk got married, they immigrated to Atlanta, where they had two daughters, Sehee and Semi. For both daughters' first birthdays, or doljanchi—a traditional milestone often celebrated with a huge party to commemorate the health of the child—Georgia made her signature dakgangjeong.
Many people probably think of the spicy gochujang-based sauce when they hear "Korean fried chicken," but there are other variations of the dish equally popular in Korea. The version my Aunt Georgia makes—and the one that's beloved in our family and in many social circles around Atlanta—has a garlicky, soy sauce–based glaze and is served in large aluminum foil trays to be eaten buffet-style at various family functions, including parties, church events, and funerals.
Undoubtedly the greatest feature of this chicken is that it stays crunchy for hours out of the fryer. In fact, I'm convinced that it's even crunchier cold, thanks to the soy sauce and brown sugar glaze—which, when hot, is molten lava but, once cool, glossily candies any surface it touches. For years I thought this was magic, a feat only possible due to my aunt's kitchen prowess.
Georgia wasn't always a good cook, though. "When I first got married, all the bachelor samchon [uncles] were cooking better than me," she laughs. But, eager to learn, she pored over a set of cookbooks she had brought from Korea. There were three volumes: Korean home cooking, Chinese home cooking, and American home cooking. The dinners she put on the table day to day came from these books, and it's how she practiced her craft and fed her extended family, as well. She doesn't remember where she got the fried chicken recipe, she tells me over the phone, though it's likely from a cookbook. "But I've been cooking it for a long time. Forty years, ever since I moved here."
Everyone in our family associates dakgangjeong with Aunt Georgia—and with big life events. This is not weeknight food. Recently, she made it for Semi's wedding rehearsal dinner. "Everyone loved it," Georgia tells me. I can hear her smiling through the receiver. Her dakgangjeong is the kind of high-impact small bite that keeps you going when there are people to talk to and old pictures to look through. And, of course, it's comfort food. The last time I had it was after my Uncle Young's funeral. Same as always, Georgia made the chicken. And we ate it.
Watching Georgia cook her fried chicken is an indication of the role it has played in her life since her Korea University days: a means to feed the people she loves. Her daughters describe her dakgangjeong method as one of great focus and determination. "She keeps busy, but it's a flow," Sehee says, "going back and forth from cabinet to countertop to refrigerator to stove." Never stopping until the last wing is fried and glazed.
She sets up a gas range in the sunroom to fry off the chicken, Sehee explains. "That way, the whole house doesn't smell of fried chicken. Even when it's 90-something outside and that room is already very hot, she just sits there frying away without showing any uneasiness." There are people to feed.