Age means fried. Kara… that’s a little bit more complicated.
Depending on who you ask, it either means “Chinese” or “bare.”
Remember that scene in The Karate Kid where Mr. Miyagi explains to Daniel his family history with Karate?
Mr. Miyagi: In Okinawa, all Miyagi know two things: fish and karate. Karate come from China, sixteenth century, called te, “hand”. Hundred year later, Miyagi ancestor bring to Okinawa, call karate. “empty hand”.
Daniel: I always thought it came from Buddhist temples and stuff like that.
Mr. Miyagi: You too much TV.
Daniel: That what my mother tells me.
Mr. Miyagi is glossing over a bit of a detail here. For a long but uncertain period of time (put a mental asterisk here) prior to 1935, the name of the art was written in kanji meaning “Chinese hand.” In 1935, when Japan was seeking to distance itself from Chinese influence (to be fair, Japan’s 1931 invasion of Manchuria started them down this path), a committee of Japanese martial artists (the Dai Nippon Butoku Kai) decided to change the kanji to a homophone meaning “empty” or “bare.”
If that seems like a silly reason to change the name of something, you’re absolutely right. Freedom fries, anyone?
Here’s the asterisk: nobody’s actually sure that “Chinese hand” was the original meaning of karate, because until things got a little hostile between the countries, it had been fashionable until about the last decade of the 19th century to associate things with China to give them a sense of class. So while there was a decision to turn away from “Chinese hand” in the 20th century, that might have merely reversed a decision to turn toward “Chinese hand” a century earlier.
So what does this mean for kara-age? Tough to say for me, since I don’t know Japanese. A few places seem to indicate that the kanji used is the one indicating Chinese origin, but most places defining the dish go with a definition of “bare chicken,” contrasting it with the breaded katsu preparations. And it’s certainly true that frying in a starch slurry is a technique used in Chinese cuisine–for example, Cantonese salt and pepper shrimp.
That said, there aren’t any English language mentions of chicken kara-age before the 1960s; Army instruction materials given to soldiers stationed in Okinawa mention sushi, sukiyaki, and a handful of other dishes, but not kara-age, which would’ve been a natural choice for Western palates.
Here’s a version that separates out the marinade from the cornstarch from the July 15, 1969 edition of The Albuquerque Tribune:
(Kara-Age is food covered with cornstarch and fried in oil).
1 chicken, cut in serving pieces
Cut up chicken and bone. Mix ingredients for sauce. Dip each chicken piece in sauce. Then coat each with cornstarch, pressing the cornstarch into the meat. heat enough oil for deep fat frying. Fry the chicken until golden brown.
From a box sold in Martinez, California.
3 lbs. cut up boned chicken
- 4 Tbsp. flour
- 8 Tbsp. cornstarch
- 4 Tbsp. sugar
- 2/3 Tbsp. salt
- 1 Tbsp. sesame seeds, toasted
- 1 tsp. Ajinomoto
- 5 tsp. shoyu
- 2 green onions chopped well
- 2 cloves chopped garlic
- 2 eggs
Marinate chicken in mix.
350 deg. Fry chicken in oil till golden brown.