Taiwanese Popcorn Chicken is the crunchy, bite-sized flavor-packed fried chicken you’ve been craving! My recipe happens to be gluten-free, soy-free, egg-free, paleo, and Whole30-compatible (if air-fried) but it still tastes like the real deal!
What is Taiwanese Popcorn Chicken?
Taiwanese Popcorn Chicken is a popular street food item found at night markets in Taiwan. It’s my favorite type of fried chicken because the chicken pieces are seasoned with a five-spice powder infused soy sauce marinade that keeps them juicy—and each bite is coated with a light and crispy coating (normally corn starch or potato starch). The key spices in the marinade are Chinese five spice blend and ground white pepper, which give this popcorn chicken its distinctive, crave-worthy flavor.
Taiwanese Popcorn Chicken is typically paired with fried Thai basil as well, which taste like crispy anise-flavored green chips!
Soy-free and gluten-free popcorn chicken
If you’re celiac and missing Asian fried chicken, make my paleo and gluten-free Taiwanese popcorn chicken recipe! I’ve replaced the usual soy-sauce based marinade with a doctored-up version of my super-versatile All-Purpose Stir-Fry Sauce and believe me: the taste is spot-on! Also, the batter is naturally gluten-free—it’s just potato starch. And if you’re avoiding nightshades, the potato starch can easily be substituted with tapioca starch (though the resulting coating won’t be as crispy).
What’s the secret to perfect fried chicken?
The correct oil temperature! Without a doubt, the key to crispy fried chicken that isn’t soggy and greasy is to make sure the oil temperature stays around 350°F and the only way to do that precisely is with an accurate thermometer.
I use two types of thermometers when I deep fry stuff: my ChefAlarm which monitors the oil constantly and my instant-read thermometer so I can spot check the temperature. You’ll need to adjust the heat as needed because the oil temperature will drop when you add the chicken to the pot. On the other hand, it can also get too high if you aren’t keeping a close eye on it.
Air Fryer and Whole30 Instructions
For a mess-free alternative to deep-frying, you can make Taiwanese Popcorn chicken in the air fryer! Plus, the recipe is Whole30-compatible if you cook it in the air fryer. (Air fryer instructions are in the printable recipe card at the bottom.)
My key tips for crispy air fryer Taiwanese fried chicken:
- Spray the battered nuggets well with avocado oil! I spray them before putting the nuggets in the air fryer and place them, oil-side down, on the rack. I give the nuggets another spray of oil before I shut the basket.
- Don’t overcrowd the basket! Yes, you will have to cook the popcorn chicken in batches, but the wait is worth it!
- Shake the air fryer basket at the halfway point! To ensure an uniform crispy texture, I shake the air fryer basket one or two times midway through the cooking process.
- Don’t air fry basil leaves. Although I love the crispy fried basil leaves, I don’t make them if I’m cooking the chicken in the air fryer. The basil leaves are difficult to air fry because they either burn or fly around inside the basket.
- Boneless skinless chicken thighs: Yes, I know you’re tempted to use boneless, skinless chicken breast but this dish really does tastes better (and is juicier) with chicken thighs.
- All-Purpose Stir-Fry Sauce (or A.P.S.F.S): This magical sauce can do everything and is the essential base for the soy-free and gluten-free marinade. It already contains garlic, ginger, and onion powder so you can leave out the other spices if you don’t have them on hand.
- Spices: Ground white pepper and Chinese five spice blend, which generally consists of cinnamon, cloves, fennel seeds, star anise and Sichuan peppercorns, are the key flavors in Taiwanese popcorn chicken. You can buy both at your friendly neighborhood Asian grocery store.
- Sichuan peppercorns: It’s not essential, but the tingly, numbing effect from Sichuan peppercorns is a great way to finish off this dish. If you’re already at an Asian market shopping for Chinese five spice and ground white pepper, you might as well pick some up!
- Flaky Sea Salt: I love the crunch flaky sea salt adds to fried chicken. My favorite brand is Jacobsen Sea Salt.
- Avocado oil: Instead of using vegetable oil to deep-fry the chicken, I love using this neutral, high-temperature cooking oil. If you want to reuse it after frying, follow these instructions on how to clean deep-fry oil with gelatin. (If you’re air frying the chicken, use avocado oil spray with no additives. The additives can cause an sticky buildup on the air fryer surface.)
- Potato starch: Some Taiwanese popcorn chicken recipes use cornstarch or sweet potato flour (or sweet potato starch) as the coating, but potato starch is the naturally gluten-free coating that I prefer. You can substitute tapioca starch, but I think potato starch gives a crispier crunch!
- Thai basil leaves or basil leaves: Fried basil is optional, but the crispy herbaceous leaves add a super tasty kick to this dish. Just make sure the leaves are totally dry when you dump them in the fry oil so there’s no splatter! (Skip the basil leaves if you’re air frying!)
How to make Taiwanese Popcorn Chicken
Cut up the chicken
Pat the chicken thighs dry with a paper towel and cut them into 1-inch bite-size pieces.
Marinate the chicken
In a large bowl, toss the chicken with All-Purpose Stir-Fry Sauce, Chinese five spice blend, and white pepper.
Marinate the chicken for at least 30 minutes or covered in the fridge for up to a day.
Make the tingly seasoning salt
While the chicken is marinating, crush the Sichuan peppercorns in a mortar and pestle, spice grinder, or with a heavy pot. Then, combine the crushed peppercorns and flaky sea salt in a bowl and set it aside.
Batter the chicken
Dump the potato starch into a large, shallow bowl. Take a few pieces of chicken and toss them into the potato starch.
Coat the pieces well, and shake off any excess. Place the coated chicken pieces on a wire rack over a rimmed baking sheet. Repeat until all the chicken pieces have been coated in potato starch.
Fry the popcorn chicken
When you’re ready to fry the chicken, pour avocado oil into a large Dutch oven or high-sided pot. It should reach about 2 inches up the sides.
Heat the oil on medium high until it reaches 350°F. Carefully add about a quarter of the chicken pieces to the oil, making sure they’re not overcrowded.
Fry the chicken until the pieces are golden brown and cooked through, about 2 to 4 minutes.
Use a slotted spoon or spider to transfer the cooked chicken pieces to a paper towel-lined plate.
Add the tingly seasoning salt
Sprinkle the hot popcorn chicken with the reserved Sichuan pepper and flaky salt blend.
Fry the basil
Toss in the basil leaves and fry until crispy, about 1 to 2 minutes.
Garnish the popcorn chicken with fried basil leaves and eat immediately.
What can you serve with it?
Some of my favorite side dishes to serve with Taiwanese Popcorn Chicken include:
[Originally posted on June 21, 2021. Updated with new information and photos on February 6, 2023.]
Looking for more recipe ideas? Head on over to my Recipe Index. You’ll also find exclusive recipes in my cookbooks, Nom Nom Paleo: Food for Humans (Andrews McMeel Publishing 2013), Ready or Not! (Andrews McMeel Publishing 2017), and Nom Nom Paleo: Let’s Go! (Andrews McMeel Publishing 2022)
PRINTER-FRIENDLY RECIPE CARD
Taiwanese Popcorn Chicken (Paleo, Whole30, Gluten-Free)
- 1½ pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs
- 2 tablespoons All-Purpose Stir-Fry Sauce
- 1½ teaspoons Chinese five spice blend
- 1 teaspoon ground white pepper
- 2 teaspoons Sichuan peppercorns
- 2 teaspoons flaky sea salt
- 1 cup potato starch or tapioca starch
- 6 cups avocado oil or avocado oil spray if using an air fryer
- ½ cup Thai basil leaves or basil leaves
- Pat the chicken thighs dry with a paper towel and cut them into 1-inch pieces.
- Place the chicken in a bowl and add the All-Purpose Stir-Fry Sauce, Chinese five-spice blend, and white pepper.
- Toss the chicken in the seasoning and marinate for at least 30 minutes or covered, in the fridge, for up to a day.
- While the chicken is marinating, make the tingly seasoning salt. Crush the Sichuan peppercorns in a mortar and pestle, spice grinder, or with a heavy pot. In a small bowl, mix the crushed peppercorns and flaky sea salt. Set aside.
- When you’re ready to fry the chicken, add the potato starch to a large, shallow bowl. Take a few pieces of marinated chicken and toss them into the potato starch.
- Coat the pieces well, and shake off any excess. Place the coated chicken pieces on a wire rack over a rimmed baking sheet. Repeat with all the chicken.
- Pour avocado oil into a large Dutch oven or high-sided pot. It should reach about 2 inches up the sides. Heat the oil on medium high until it reaches 350°F.
- Carefully add about a quarter of the chicken pieces to the oil, making sure they’re not overcrowded. Fry the chicken until the pieces are golden brown and cooked through, about 2 to 4 minutes.
- Use a slotted spoon or spider to transfer the cooked chicken pieces to a paper towel-lined plate.
- Season the hot popcorn chicken with the reserved Sichuan pepper and flaky salt blend. Repeat with the remaining chicken pieces, adjusting the heat to maintain a cooking oil temperature of 350°F
- Toss in the basil leaves and fry until crispy, about 1 to 2 minutes. (Make sure the basil leaves are very dry or the oil will splatter!)
- Garnish the popcorn chicken with fried basil leaves and eat immediately.
- Follow steps 1 through 6.
- Spray the battered nuggets all over with avocado spray. I spray the battered nuggets on the wire rack and then place them sprayed-side down on the air fryer basket. Then, I spray the tops of the nuggets before I air fry them.
- Place the chicken in a single layer and don't crowd them. Air fry the chicken, in batches, at 400°F for about 9 to 12 minutes. Make sure you shake the basket a few times while you’re air frying them to get them crispy all over.
- The Taiwanese popcorn chicken is done when the outside is golden brown and crispy and the center is fully cooked.
- Season the hot popcorn chicken with the reserved Sichuan pepper and flaky salt blend.
- Don't bother air frying basil—the chicken tastes great without it and you won’t end up with burned leaves!
Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.