Global Interpretation | A Cultural History of Fried Chicken

Rita’s head chef Gabriel Pryce talks about the roots of the iconic dish.

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Nov 14 2016, 11:55am

More often than not, when fried chicken comes up in conversations about fine dining in London, there’s a suggestion that these restaurants are bravely rescuing a sub-par foodstuff, rehabilitating the humble thigh. The thing is, the very idea of “posh fried chicken” does a huge disservice to its cultural heritage.

When we opened Rita’s in 2013 [the much-loved east London venue closed in 2016] it wasn’t about taking a kind of fast food and elevating it—like putting foie gras on a burger, or making rare breed hotdogs—we were making a style of Southern fried chicken and treating it with the respect it deserved. Hopefully somewhere close to how it was and always has been made in the American south.

Fried chicken didn’t start life in a fast food joint or a take-out, and we weren’t trying to make it posh. It comes from a place where they care about cooking and what they eat. Fried chicken is a dish that originated in the American south in the 18th century and it wasn’t an everyday kind of meal—it was something that was made on special occasions. Fast food joints are making a lesser version of a beautiful thing; our aim was always to look back at where it started.

Fried chicken waffle at Dirty Bones. Photo: Instagram

There are versions of fried chicken all over the world that are very different from what you’d find at Rita’s back in the day or at the likes of Clutch, Chicken Shop, or Red Rooster today— in southern China and Korea, for example. The inspiration and origins of the fried chicken we serve is from the American South.

It’s a dish that developed from the migration that took place there. White landowners with Scottish heritage brought slaves to the south from West Africa, two places with a tradition of frying chicken. Although the terrible reality of life there would impede any helpful or strengthening crossover of cultures there was a meeting in the middle when it came to the food.

The fried chicken explosion is closely tied to the emergence of a working class in the US. The kind of food they made was influenced by these surroundings and the heritage of the cuisine their forbearers had left behind. As plantations in the south closed, people began to settle down and live as families in homes, where fried chicken could be made to feed everyone.

Around the time of the Great Depression, restaurants and cook shops were serving fried chicken, and it was during that period in American history, when KFC took it’s first steps toward global domination. It started as Sanders Court & Café after the KFC founder, Garland Sander, in 1930. And in 1952 the first franchise opened, which marked the beginning of their expansion into Europe and the UK.

That paved the way for the Chicken Cottages, Chicken Coops, Big Portions, Morley’s and PFCs you see all over London today.

Buttermilk fried chicken & pine salt at The Clove Club. Photo: Isaac McHale

The post-Chicken Cottage era that we’re in is about a revival of the original food—a food that has incredible integrity—and its cultural heritage. I lived in America for six years and used to eat at a lot of southern style chicken. When I came back there was nowhere to get good fried chicken. We genuinely saw a gap in the market for fantastic food and thought London needed somewhere that served it.

At Rita’s we did a few different recipes of fried chicken. There was Southern-style, half-fried chicken, American-style Buffalo wings, which have an American flavour profile even though we use Asian ingredients in the recipe, and Asian-style soy and ginger wings. We even did classic fried chicken sandwich.

The Lockheart fried chicken and steamed greens. Photo: Carol Sachs
Ritas fried chicken and steamed greens. Photo: Carol Sachs
Bao's steamed buns and kara-age fried chicken. Photo: Carol Sachs

Fried chicken exists all over the world. As a chef the reason I love it so much is that it’s non-competitive. The way I make fried chicken, the way Carolina Chicken next door makes it, or someone’s dad makes it is no better or worse. It’s a universal dish that’s been interpreted by people for centuries all over the world.

I find traditional Southern fried chicken one of the nicest foods in the world. But fried chicken comes in many forms and it’s important to remember how ubiquitous it is. Take BAO’s fried chicken steamed bun; they also do a Taiwanese-style kara-age fried chicken. The Chiltern Firehouse does a buttermilk fried chicken, and my local Chinese does fried chicken. You’re never going to find the person who invented it, you’re always just experiencing it in whatever way each chef chooses to cook it.

Gabriel Pryce is chef living and working in London.