Someone recently asked me if Christmas is a big deal in Japan, and the answer is a definite yes. Christmas has been in full swing here since after Halloween and it’s everything that you would expect from a modern, secular, and commercialized Christmas. Santa Claus. Snowmen. Classic holiday music. Christmas trees decorated with ornaments, tinsel, and presents. And Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Yes, you read that right: KFC, or “Kentakki,” as the locals call it. In Japan, Colonel Sanders is the other old guy with a white beard who is associated with Christmas. But instead of toys, he comes bearing his world famous chicken for good little boys and girls.
The story behind how KFC’s chicken became so identified with Christmas is a testament to the power of marketing in Japan. According to legend, KFC Japan got the idea in the early 1970s when a foreigner (perhaps an American) went to a KFC in Tokyo to buy chicken during the holiday season because it was the closest thing to turkey that they could find in Japan. Since then, KFC has run a highly successful campaign to promote fried chicken as the quintessential Christmas food, eaten by Americans during the most wonderful time of the year.
According to the Japan Times, about 20 percent of KFC’s annual sales in Japan comes during the holiday season from selling Christmas chicken. Customers place orders months in advance for a Christmas dinner set that includes a chicken bucket (“party barrel,” as they are referred to Japan), salad, and a chocolate cake. KFC also offers a special premium menu during Christmas that features such items as roast chicken and chicken breast stuffed with shrimp and mushrooms in a creamy cheese sauce.
Furthermore, KFC sells a commemorative set of stackable holiday mugs depicting idyllic images of Christmas trees, snow, Santa and his reindeer, and families enjoying a traditional Christmas meal of Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Yes, Kentucky Fried Chicken equals Christmas in Japan. But KFC’s competitors — including conbini chains Family Mart and Lawson’s — have not been content to let it be the alpha bird that rules the Christmas roost, and are offering their own holiday chicken. So on Christmas Eve this year, “No Ramen, No Life” did a special holiday taste-off with several friends that pitted Kentucky Fried Chicken against Mos Burger, Family Mart, Lawson’s, and a Japanese chicken joint called Tori Sanwa.
Who’s fried chicken reigns supreme? Let’s look at out contestants.
Kentucky Fried Chicken
As the originator of Christmas chicken and the paragon of American-style fried chicken in most of the world, “Kentakki” is obviously the starting out point for any taste comparison. We wondered if the Colonel’s secret blend of herbs and spices might be different in Japan in order to cater to the local palette. But no, KFC tastes exactly the same here as it does in America. It was arguably the best seasoned of all the traditional style fried chicken, with a peppery taste. While the meat was moist in some pieces, it was quite dry in others — something I remember about KFC back in the United States. Still, it’s pretty good for fast food fried chicken.
Family Mart markets its Famima Premium Chicken, which comes in a fashionably black box, as a KFC alternative for Christmas. Family Mart’s chicken got high marks for its moist, thick, and meaty chicken (our pack came with both drumsticks and thighs). One person thought that, based on appearances alone, it looked the most tantalizing of all the options. The breading is similar to KFC’s chicken, but much thinner and milder tasting than the Colonel’s. It beats KFC on the meat, but loses on the flavor. Pretty good for conbini chicken that might have been sitting under a heat lamp for several hours before I bought it.
The Japanese have a tendency to individually wrap their food, which is what the attendant at Lawson’s did when I bought the “Ougon” chicken drumsticks that they advertise for Christmas. I don’t think it was necessary at all — every other place threw the chicken together into one box — but I didn’t want to show a lack of appreciation for his effort. Anyway, the meat on the drumsticks were nice and moist, with the same traditional-style breading that you find in the KFC and Family Mart chicken. The flavor was somewhere in between KFC and Family Mart, saltier and more peppery than the Famima chicken, but not as well seasoned as the Colonel’s.
Mos Burger, the McDonald’s/Burger King of Japan, has gotten into the holiday chicken competition with a marketing campaign called “Merry Xmos.” Their Christmas chicken was by far the crispiest, like a super-sized chicken tender with a bone running through it on one side. The seasoning was interesting in a good way — it has a salty and what I can only describe as a somewhat smokey flavor. The meat was slight dry, but not too bad, and the breading was by far the thickest of all the ones we tried. We also tried to figure out what part of the chicken we were eating, as it was not at all obvious at first glance. Someone speculated that it might have been the wing with some breast meat that was flattened. It led to some jokes about food engineering that certain fast food chains such as McDonald’s are infamous for.
Tori Sanwa (鶏三和) is the dark horse, non-fast food candidate in this taste test, a Nagoya-based chain that specializes in a variety of Japanese chicken dishes including yakitori, chicken donburi, and chicken karaage (Japanese style fried chicken nuggets). I was walking by their branch in Tokyo Midtown the other day when I noticed that they were offering a special fried chicken for Christmas, and I thought it would be interesting to add them into the mix. While the other restaurants served American-style fried chicken, Tori Sanwa takes a more local approach. The outside is dark brown and crispy, and has a salty, spicy, and smokey flavor (I’m pretty sure that soy sauce was one of the seasonings used). The meat was nice and moist, though not quite as meaty as some of the other’s, such as Family Mart or KFC. A couple of us really liked Tori Sanwa’s fried chicken, but one person disliked the unusual taste.
Finding a winner was not as clear cut as I had expected, as each chicken had its pros and cons, and everyone had their own individual tastes and preferences. Among the more traditionally breaded fried chicken, we had a surprisingly good contest among KFC, Family Mart, and Lawson’s. KFC is obviously the most venerable of the three — it’s the peppery, slightly spicy chicken that the world has come to love, and it’s still a great option out of all the fast food fried chickens we tasted. At the same time, several of our admitedly small group of taste testers commented very positively on the Famima Premium Chicken. Lawson’s chicken seems to have staked out the middle ground between KFC and Family Mart, both in terms of the meat and the seasoning, but it also means that it is not as outstanding in either respect compared to their competitors.
However, if you like your chicken very crispy and heavily battered on the outside, Mos Burger is your winner. It was the favorite of one of our taste testers. And while opinions were a little bit polarized, I would recommend trying Tori Sanwa’s fried chicken for something different and more Japanese in flavor.
Finally, is fried chicken for Christmas a good idea after all? Let’s put it this way: a couple of the taste testers told me today that they were still thinking about last night’s chicken. One of them even admitted that she was craving fried chicken while opening presents early this morning.
Have a Merry, Kentucky-fried Christmas everyone!