If it weren’t for the chopsticks, you might say karaage is finger-lickin’ good. The popular Japanese dish is a cousin to what’s on the menu at KFC.

“People call it Japanese fried chicken,” said chef Katsuya Fukushima of Daikaya, which serves it in its upstairs izakaya, or pub, in Penn Quarter.

Karaage (pronounced kara-ah-gay) refers to protein or veggies — chicken is the most popular — that have been marinated and lightly coated in flour, or potato or corn starch, and flash-fried. Historians trace its provenance to China.

“It’s just a really common, homey dish,” said Cizuka Seki, co-owner of Izakaya Seki near U Street, and “as ubiquitous as the chicken nugget.” In Japan, karaage is found on almost every izakaya menu.

Bottom right, the karaage-don — fried chicken marinated in mirin and soy sauce, served with sliced onions and a half-cooked egg — served with onsen egg, kizami nori and takuan, at Donburi. (Joseph Victor Stefanchik/For The Washington Post)

At Izakaya Seki, bite-size pieces of chicken thigh are marinated in soy sauce, mirin, salt and pepper, and coated in wheat flour before frying. Daikaya marinates its thigh pieces in soy, scallions, ginger and garlic before dusting them with potato starch and finishing them off in the deep fryer. The preparation differentiates the dish from tempura, in which items aren’t marinated but are battered before frying.

The crispy karaage bites come with a dipping sauce. Japanese Kewpie Mayonnaise, a beloved brand that Fukushima says “has a twang to it” is traditional. Daikaya’s dip — the mayonnaise mixed with Japanese chili peppers, pureed garlic and ginger and a bit of lemon juice — is “an ode to McDonald’s,” he said. That familiarity and the newfound popularity of izakaya-influenced restaurants may have helped karaage take off locally.

“It’s one of our most accessible dishes for anybody who is unfamiliar with Japanese food, so it’s fairly popular,” Seki said.

Karaage is so revered in Japan, that there is an official karaage association, which issues standards and ratings of restaurants that serve it. The association names the city of Nakatsu in Oita Prefecture as the “holy land” of karaage, according to Seki’s translation.

In addition to Izakaya Seki and Daikaya, you’ll find karaage on the menu at Donburi in Adams Morgan, where it is available as both a side dish and a featured ingredient in the restaurant’s Karaagedon rice bowl (pictured here, with nori and egg). At Daikaya, it also can be ordered at brunch, served with a fish-shaped, red-bean-paste-filled waffle, wasabi butter and maple syrup — a Japanese version of chicken and waffles.

Karaage pairs particularly well with beer. “I prefer Orion beer,” said Fukushima, and not only because it’s brewed in his home prefecture, Okinawa. “It comes in a big bottle, which is fun because you can share and pour it for everyone. It’s a little more social.”

As with chicken nuggets here, karaage is both bar food and kids’ food in Japan. The dish therefore reminds Fukushima of nights at izakayas as well as lunches at school. In fact, the karaage he serves tastes the same as the karaage that was packed in his bento box. “It is my mom’s recipe,” he said. “She gave me the nod
of approval.”

More Plate Lab

For stories, features such as Date Lab, Gene Weingarten and more, visit WP Magazine.

Follow the Magazine on Twitter.

Like us on Facebook.

E-mail us at wpmagazine@washpost.com.