Everybody knows about the now-reversed “Curse of the Bambino” put on the Boston Red Sox in 1918 when they sold Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees. Well, sports fans in Japan have an urban legend of their own fueled by a national passion for baseball and Kentucky Fried Chicken.
The “Curse of the Colonel” began in 1985 when a store-front statue of Colonel Sanders was thrown into the D?tonbori River by a celebratory mob of Hanshin Tigers fans (after the team won its first and only championship in the Japan Series). But the Colonel didn’t get the joke, and Tigers fans have been sentenced to watch their team lose the series three times since that fateful night. Desperate for some good juju, Tigers fans dragged the statue’s upper torso out of the river, giving it reconstructive surgery and returning it to the nearest KFC in 2009.
Perhaps hungry for a win, KFC Japan’s menu has gone on to defy any curse against its home turf by creating a whole new form of fast food unlike anything the Colonel might have dared to imagine. So far, KFC Japan has scored a home run.
Christmas is not a national holiday in Japan, but eating KFC as a Christmas meal has become a widely practiced tradition thanks to an ad campaign that started in 1974. The holiday meal that people have been known to stand in line for hours to order includes a festive bucket of fried chicken, a side, cake and even champagne. Look no further for the perfect holiday dinner soundtrack than any one of the Colonel’s three curated Christmas albums from the late 1960s. It’s the gift that keeps on giving back to the dollar crates in vinyl record stores.
It’s a slightly different offering than America’s KFC Famous Bowl, the contents of which are essentially what you get when you wipe down the service line at the end of the night. Flavors include Japanese Teriyaki and Spanish Salpicao as well as the more traditional Kentadon bowl, which combines crispy pieces of chicken with deep fried shiitake mushrooms, sweet potatoes and spicy green peppers. Served on a bed of rice and drizzled with a piquant sweet sauce, it’s like a bucket of KFC and a bowl of tempura were last call lovers in a bar after the Tigers got sacked.
Made exclusively for the Colonel’s Dish line of menu items, KFC Japan has offered its discerning diners a fancy feast of terrine – like a cold, meat loaf-fruit cake hybrid in chicken and beef variations – and the roasted ballotine prepared with apricots, plums, cranberries, oranges and chestnuts stewed in white wine, rolled up with chicken, tied with twine, roasted and topped with more fruit. Unfortunately, the terrine has been discontinued, but the ballotine survives at select KFC locations.
Nobody seems to know whose idea it was to punch a hole in the biscuits, but at Halloween they’re available in pumpkin flavor. You can even get one topped with soft serve ice cream and maple syrup at KFC Japan’s only all-you-can-eat buffet in Osaka. The flavor of this staple side reportedly tastes blander than the American version. Although, when topped with ice cream and maple syrup, the taste of what’s underneath probably doesn’t matter much anymore.
The Bistro Hamburg is a bold choice for the fried chicken chain, mainly because there is neither a fried nor a chicken component anywhere to be found. Instead we have a 30 percent pork, 70 percent beef patty covered in a mushroom demi-glace with lettuce and mayo on a bun. Introduced last year as the chain’s first burger, they even managed to get Shuzo Kishida, chef-owner of three-time Michelin star-winning restaurant Quintessence in Tokyo, to vouch for how good this meat masterpiece really is.
Since Kentucky Fried Fish took off last year, the panko-crusted, deep fried salmon fillet with its generous drizzle of tartar sauce has become a seasonal favorite in Japan. It’s also available in sandwich form with lettuce and a squirt of basil and tartar sauces. In a country whose massive fish consumption is only second to China’s, it’s no surprise to find its KFC consumers delight in having a seafood option – however deep fried and covered in mayo it may be.
Not to be outdone by America’s infamous Double Down sandwich (bacon and cheese between two fried chicken fillets), or the Philippines’ Double Dog (hot dog cradled in a fried chicken fillet), KFC Japan’s Kentucky Chicken Rice sandwich, unleashed in 2013, is a ketchup-soaked rice patty layered with cheese and sauce between two fried chicken fillets. It’s a consolation prize fit for those hangry nights after the Tigers lose yet another game. An honorable mention goes to South Korea’s Zinger Double Down King that went the extra mile by adding a beef patty to the classic Double Down recipe.
KFC Japan dug into its roots and opened up a small number of tiny take-out windows serving various flavors of boneless chicken packaged in a two-tiered plastic bento box. Complete with a set of chopsticks, the box holds the meal on top and a tray of rice underneath. Sides include a scoop of potato salad and a bite-sized egg omelet. It’s won favorable reviews. Proof that the Colonel’s curse is no match for Japanese tradition.
The deep fried corn potage fritters at KFC Japan are said to have been inspired by a recipe for potato-bacon fritters shared in the Colonel’s autobiography. These little miracles were a hit riding on the corn potage trend that swept Japan after an ice pop brand released the instantly popular corn potage flavor. And the crowd went wild. It’s only a matter of time before deep fried soup takes state fairs by storm.
You want whiskey with that? In 2012 KFC Japan opened ROUTE 25, the world’s first KFC equipped with a fully stocked whiskey bar in Tokyo. The business venture is named after the U.S. highway that passes by the original Sanders Café in Kentucky where the Colonel first started slinging his chicken at age 65. Dreams really do come true with a little hard work and determination, and not least, a neat glass of Kentucky bourbon with your two piece combo.
Whether or not its inspiration comes from catering to sports fans needing to drown their sorrows in comfort food, the KFC Japan refuses to cower to any so-called curse. Even when the game is lost, fans are found again in that mysterious blend of 11 herbs and spices that keeps the world coming back for more.
Main photos by Cary Doctorow CC BY-SA and Danny Choo CC BY-SA
Julie Vitto has contributed writing and photography to entertainment and lifestyle magazines covering central Pennsylvania, the Nordic region and points in between. She likes the theme song to Cheers.