I'm Ruby Tandoh and I'm a food writer who loves fast food. In this column, I'll review Britain's best-loved junk food chains, revelling in the joys of a 99p Chicken Mayo and giving my professional take on pressing issues like whether McDonald's or Burger King does the best shake and exactly how hot the Nando's spice scale goes.
What is it? KFC
What can you get there? Chicken and only chicken.
What about vegetarians? Lol enjoy your corn on the cob, the Colonel has nothing for you here.
How can you get it? In a bucket, in a box, in a popcorn carton.
Some meals are mythic: things like Heinz baked beans and Drumstick lollies and Terry's Chocolate Orange that taste of nostalgia and modernity and now and forever all at once. These foods are so much bigger than they seem. They don't need to be 'good for you' to be good for you – their nourishment goes way deeper than just calories and carbs. These are the foods we choose to worship: a chef becomes a saviour; a recipe a secret formula; a brand can become a battleground when there's this much at stake. There's one company in particular that's made a fast food empire off the back of a myth, and made itself mythic in turn – it's a giddy dreamscape of comfort food and secrecy, of homemade-style chicken and a celebrity Colonel. I've got my notebook in my pocket, a tenner and some coins jangling in my jeans and I'm ready to set out on a pilgrimage to the KFC on Southend High Street between Ann Summers and the ex-Morrisons.
I've not had much KFC in my life. I've had SFC and Chicken Cottage, Chicken Delight and Tastee Fried Chicken. I've had chicken strips with fries and six pieces of hot chicken and chicken burgers and nuggets and a bucketful of freshly fried wings, but I've never tried much of the finger-lickin' good original. I'm here, then, to see what I've been missing.
I jump straight in with the Mighty Bucket – two fillets, two pieces of original recipe chicken, two hot wings, fries and a drink. I've got to admit I'm impressed, wooed even, by the audacity of serving chicken by the bucketful. This is what I want – not just a bucket, but a Mighty bucket – and this is exactly what I will have. The chicken fillet pieces are first up, and they're the best chicken nuggets I've ever had. The batter is somehow impossibly crisp, the chicken still meaty, tender and moist. I'm half expecting that delicious bird-flavoured foam that you usually get in cheap nuggets, but as I hungrily tear at a piece I see the chicken pull away in juicy shreds: this is real chicken, in a real chicken-esque format, with a genuine chickeny texture, and it's fucking magical.
Next in the Mighty Bucket are the Hot Wings. Wings are great even when they're not: something about the ration of fatty, crispy skin and seasoning to the meat inside means they're always tender and moreishly salty. Obviously there are the bones to navigate, but these are only a problem if you're squeamish about getting your hands dirty, which is an unforgivable kind of fussiness in a place like this. Let your hair down for five minutes, get hot spice under your nails and grease on your chin and enjoy your food. It shouldn't be hard to have a nice time when the food's this good.
I've saved the Original Recipe chicken until last. The batter is perfectly seasoned and so rich with that Top Secret spice blend (somehow hot and earthy and savoury and sweet all at the same time) that I wonder whether I'll ever want to eat anything else in my life. I'm not so sure what the chicken inside is: one piece is a drumstick, but my nervousness leaves me wary of the bum-shaped second piece. It's no horror story – the maybe-bum is actually tasty enough, if a bit like a service station roast chicken sandwich – but maybe not for those who, like me, prefer their meat reformed safely into neat, non-meaty little chunks.
Next is the Zinger Burger. It's perfectly thick and meaty, and with a satisfying bite to the batter that I've grown to expect that from KFC by now. What really takes me aback is the heat – I was expecting the kind of non-committal whisper of paprika you usually get from 'spicy' fast food, as though the chicken had once been waved at by a chilli Dorito from across a crowded room. The reality though is a punchy, peppery, spicy warmth – nothing eye-watering, but a welcome chilli piquancy alongside the freshness of the lettuce and the cool mayo.
The Popcorn Chicken is also a welcome surprise. Though they're a little bland alongside the spiced robustness of the Original Recipe and Zinger chicken, I can't stop picking at these tiny morsels. They're springy, peppery and impossible to put down. Get yourself a portion of the gravy to dip them in and things get even better: the inoffensive savouriness of the chicken becomes backdrop to the meaty, dramatic, glory of the gravy. It's hot and hearty, halfway between Bisto and a white sauce, and thick enough to stand your fries up in.
And speaking of fries: here's where KFC let me down. You have to salt your own chips here, which is good in theory for the arteries and so on, but bad for flavour. I like going into McDonald's and seeing an employee standing bathed in the golden light of the chip fryer. I like seeing the hand of god reach into the light, pick up that salt sprinkler device and shower the fries in a shimmery salt mist. I don't like ripping open those tiny KFC sachets of salt and sprinkling the crunchy granules over my fries. It instantly sinks straight to the bottom, along with my spirits.
Washing the chicken down with a Maltesers Krushems (halfway between a frappe and a milkshake, icy, creamy and chocolately smooth), I try one final thing. At first glance, I'm sceptical about the Rice Boxes. There's something a bit try-hard about them, and the reek of wannabe 'wellness' is in the air. If I'd wanted a virtuous heap of damp rice, I'd have gone to Leon. The reality isn't so bad, though: though the rice is under-seasoned, it's well-cooked and plump, with a slight hint of tomatoey sweetness that sets off the spice of the Zinger chicken on top. What it adds up to is a symphony of textures and flavours – spicy and cool, crunchy and soft, salt and sweet – that lays to rest once and for all the idea that fast food is all brown, beige and bland. Could you make it better at home? Without a doubt. Does it trump the Original Recipe with fries and gravy, the stuff of legends? Of course not. But this is damn good fast food, and I like it. It's spork lickin' good.
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