London is the world capital of the fried chicken shop. But what kicked off this love affair with takeaway poultry? And - with health-conscious local councils cracking down - where is it headed? David Clack thinks inside the box.
It's 1am on a Saturday morning and my local high street (Rye Lane in Peckham) positively hums of fried chicken. At Roosters Hut - one of three chicken shops on the road, dozens in SE15 and over 8,000 in London - business is booming. Standing in line is everyone from art students to hooded crews to pensioners to thirtysomething hipsters. The lights are bright, the vibe famished.
I'm among them, and I'm about to do something I haven't done for the best part of a decade. Opening up the flimsy cardboard box, its base already flaccid and translucent with grease, I immediately remember why. I look down at the contents: four dry, shrivelled-looking, orangebrown chunks each roughly the size and shape of child's fist sit atop a bed of pale fries which are slowly steaming themselves into mush. I grab one of the chunks (wing? spleen? face?), bring it up to my mouth and take a bite.
And it's glorious.
Never mind that the plastic furniture smells of disinfectant. That the ketchup is generic. No matter about the cacophonous din coming from a fellow diner's mobile. Who cares about the pair of drunk girls noisily taking a post-ironic #chickenshopselfie? I am in heaven.
And I'm not alone. For London, fried chicken is as much a culture as it is a cuisine. There are YouTube raps declaring allegiance to various chains, and at least half a dozen blogs dedicated to documenting their subtle differences. There's even a glossy coffee-table book - 'Chicken: Low Art, High Calorie' by Siaron Hughes - showcasing the characteristic signage of chicken shops (90 percent of which is the work of just one person, the legendary 'Mr Chicken').
Attacking my second chunk, I wonder whether in a world of polished advertising, campaign hashtags and 'wackaging', chicken shops have found a niche. That it's their happy-go-lucky approach, indifference to social media and liberal use of Comic Sans that give them their cultish appeal. Suddenly, a fellow diner leaps to his feet and approaches the counter.
'These wings are the BEST!' he tells the staff. 'I ain't never going back to Morley's. Man's chicken game is STRONG!'
Or maybe I'm just reading too much into it.
Of course, not everyone in London loves fried chicken. Early last month, Labour mayoral candidate Sadiq Khan spoke out against the number of chicken shops in the capital, lumping them in with pawnbrokers and bookies as a harmful social blight. Pretty rich for a guy who happily attended Chicken Cottage's annual awards ceremony in 2012 (which is on YouTube in its entirety - watch it, it's fantastic), but rest assured that the resulting social media backlash said a lot about how Londoners feel about their deep-fried fowl.
These are well-loved London small businesses, after all. South-of-the-river staple Morley's celebrates its thirtieth anniversary this year (in which time it's spawned a host of imitators - look out for Merlie, Monley's, Mowley and Fantastic Morley on your next bus ride through south London), while Sam's Chicken - one of the biggest names on the scene with 30 outlets - has just expanded into Birmingham and the Isle of Wight.
Niroch Fernando is the product development manager at Sam's. He thinks that the lack of a strong indigenous fast food culture has a lot to do with the omnipresence of the chicken shop in London.
'If you look at Paris, it's a lot less saturated with fast food because it's a food capital,' he says. 'But in London, the local cuisine doesn't have as much of an identity, so the fish and chip shops moved on to the next fried product: chicken and chips. I think the increase in ethnic communities has the biggest part to play in that.'
Niroch is right. Chicken shops like Sam's thrive in those areas - from Tottenham to Tooting - where immigrant populations have put down roots. To take one example, on the six-minute walk between the East London Mosque and Whitechapel station, there are seven chicken shops, all of them halal.
'It's such an easy product to create, very low-cost,' says Niroch. 'And with chicken you know what you're going to get. With a burger, you don't know what it's made of, but with chicken it's just a case of how and where it's farmed.' Like many chicken shop bosses, the founder of Sam's got into the fast food game after rising through the ranks of KFC, which opened its first London outlet in Finchley in 1968. The battle for market share in the post-KFC chicken boom was fierce (Sam's pioneered the two chicken burgers for £2 deal - revolutionary at the time), and the industry has remained tense ever since.
'Relationships between chains don't exist,' Niroch bluntly explains. 'But it's a good thing it's like that. If you did have everyone sitting down and having meetings, you'd be paying £5 for a piece of chicken and chips, whereas the way it is now, people are getting the best value for money.'
But cheap doesn't always mean cheerful.
Among the most maligned chicken shop options are the two-quid-or-less meal deals (subject of YouTube grime smash 'Junior Spesh'), shamelessly aimed at kids. While there's little local councils can do to outlaw the junior special and its ilk, with childhood obesity on the rise, they are putting measures in place to curb takeaway outlets like chicken shops. Southwark Council's Peckham and Nunhead Area Action Plan forbids the opening of any hot food takeaway within 400 metres of a secondary school, and states that takeaways in the area cannot occupy more than 5 percent of shopfronts. The plan is in the process of being extended to the rest of the borough.
At the same time, the chicken shop's heritage is being co-opted by a new breed of fowl trader. Hip new chicken shack Ma Plucker is now roosting in Soho, serving deep fried chicken and waffles. Head down to streetfood markets Street Feast or Kerb and you'll find poshed-up birds on offer from the likes of Mother Clucker and Butchies, often served up with a knowing postmodern nod to places like Sam's and Chicken Cottage. In 2013, Lucky Chip went a step further - its Lucky Fried Chicken pop-up turned the upstairs of the Grafton Arms in Kentish Town into London's hippest chicken shop. There were illuminated overhead menu boards, craft beer and gourmet sides, with chicken served up in red-and-white-striped buckets with a familiar beardy face on them (landing Lucky Chip in some hot oil with the Colonel's legal team).
But, whether you see it as a playful homage or appropriation of working class culture for profit, gentri-fried chicken doesn't look likely to kill off the chicken shop - those franchises that opened during the late-noughties recession are still going strong. So if it's not buttermilk and hashtags, what is the future of fried chicken in London?
Earlier this year, a 'healthy' fried chicken restaurant called Chicken Town smashed its crowdfunding goal, and is due to open in October. It will be based in an old fire station in Tottenham, an area where 40 percent of 11-year-olds are obese. During the day it'll serve its own 'junior spesh' of steam-fried chicken and healthy, veg-packed sides. This will be subsidised by an evening service as a 'fast-casual' restaurant. 'Chicken shops are kind of like the Wild West of the restaurant industry - like an ungoverned franchise,' says Chicken Town's director Ben Rymer. 'As adults we sort of assume they're there for us after the pub, but most people don't even realise that if you go past these places at 3.30pm on a school day, they're rammed with kids.'
As for why chicken shops are so popular among grown-up Londoners - and why Sadiq Khan faced such a huge barrage of angry tweets - there is, Rymer suggests, a simple explanation. 'There's a lot of drunk people in London,' he says. 'When you're eating something that's heavily salted and heavily spiced, it cuts through the alcohol and it tastes delicious.'
The morning after my trip to Roosters, I wake up at 10.30am and stumble to the bathroom. Treading on the remnants of last night's feast on the way, I can confirm that Ben is right: context is everything when it comes to fried chicken.