Anatomy of Shōjō’s Chicken and Waffles
It goes by any number of names: bubble waffle, egg puff, gai daan jai, eggette, or Hong Kong cake. Whatever you want to call it, the eggy, hexagonal waffle, with its exaggerated dome-shaped cells, is now Hong Kong’s most popular street food. But in the hands of Shōjō’s Mark O’Leary, the griddled pancake becomes just another component—a vanilla-tinged conduit— in an ambitious, Asian-spun rendition of Southern soul food.
“We just went crazy with the whole chicken and waffles concept,” O’Leary says. “I love chicken and waffles, but I felt like we couldn’t make just a normal version at Shōjō. We had to spice it up both literally and figuratively.”
O’Leary starts by making a traditional Chinese waffle batter and frying it in a custom bubble iron. He then prepares a compound butter with five spice, star anise, brown sugar, lemon juice, and vanilla, and scoops on enough “to make the waffle smell nice and ooey gooey.”
Then comes the real work. In his brief tenure at Shōjō, O’Leary has made an effort to source many of the kitchen’s ingredients from local Chinatown markets, including one covert poultry purveyor he was unwilling to divulge.
“We’ve been trying to source most of our stuff from Chinatown,” O’Leary says. “I’m the only white chef in Chinatown right now—people have told me I’m the only white chef who has ever worked in Chinatown. So, I’m really trying to get in good with everybody. I don’t want them to be like, ‘Who’s this idiot?’ So we’re trying to use a bunch of local places, like our chicken guy from around the corner. Before I started working here, I wasn’t privy to all these cool, secret places. It’s not like a bad thing. It’s not off the back of a pickup truck or anything like that, but I honestly couldn’t tell where to find it; that’s how hard it is to get to.”
O’Leary’s mysterious drumsticks are first brined in a bath of lemongrass, garlic, ginger, and red chilies, and allowed to soak for at least 24 hours. He then uses an unconventional braising technique to ensure juicy, succulent chicken meat. In a nod to Tim Cushman’s fried pork ribs at O Ya, O’Leary first simmers the brined bird in buttermilk, lemongrass, and soy sauce, then chills them overnight. When service begins, O’Leary fries each drumstick to-order in a batter of rice flour, brown sugar, cinnamon, star anise, and a little bit of Szechuan pepper.
“That’s a technique I picked up over at O Ya,” O’Leary says. “I think it’s a relatively traditional thing to do in Chinese cuisine. They do it with their ribs to achieve a nice tender braise with a fried crispy exterior. It’s the best of both worlds. Dante de Magistris also taught me about it when I as at il Casale when they first opened. We did a lamb tongue dish that we braised in buttermilk and I thought it was really interesting. It adds tang and acidity and takes away any gaminess. Also, the enzymes break down the meat and make it super tender.”
As a finishing touch, O’Leary steeps Grade A maple syrup with Szechuan peppercorns, black pepper, juniper berries, honey, and citrus peel, and drizzles it over the top of the salt-flecked fried chicken.
“The chicken and waffles is a combination of a lot of things,” O’Leary says. “First and foremost, I’m a lazy eater. I want shit to fall off the bone. I don’t want to have to chew. Working with food all day, I’d rather just get a pizza or something that chews itself. But with the buttermilk braise, you can pick up the chicken leg and the meat will just fall onto the waffle basically. Using rice flour in the batter gives it a really nice crispy skin. And the final sprinkling of cracked black pepper really cuts through the sweetness of the syrup.”
9A Tyler St., Boston; 617-423-7888 or shojoboston.com.