Korean Chicken Wings: Spicy, Crispy, Saucy And Totally Chicago

Gam pong chicken thumbnail
Katherine Nagasawa / WBEZ
Gam pong chicken thumbnail
Katherine Nagasawa / WBEZ

Korean Chicken Wings: Spicy, Crispy, Saucy And Totally Chicago

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Whether you call them chicken lollipops, spicy Asian wings or little hotties, they inspire love and loyalty from snackers across the country. Originally called gam pong gi wings, they’re juicy chicken chunks, smooshed to one end of a bone, then deep fried and slathered in a sweet, spicy sauce.

If you asked most fans of gam pong gi wings where the dish came from, they’d probably guess Korea or even China. But we’ve got a surprise for you: These sweet, fiery chicken lollipops were invented in Chicago!

Their origin story’s compelling enough that we’re adding these wings to our growing list of foods invented in Chicago, which we started while answering a question from Chicagoan Rebbie Kinsella.

The story of this dish is really an immigration tale that starts with two chefs who operated restaurants just a few blocks apart. Each made his own special tweaks to a traditional dish.

The two chefs who invented gam pong gi wings serve two slightly different versions of the dish in their restaurants — the one from Peking Mandarin (left) is less spicy and served with a thicker sauce than the one from Great Sea (right). (WBEZ/Katherine Nagasawa)

Evolution of a tasty treat

Let’s start with the unique Chinese-Korean-American culture that the two chefs shared.

More than 100 years ago, thousands of families from China’s Shandong province moved to Korea. There, many of them opened Chinese restaurants that served dishes tailored to the local Korean palates. But these Chinese-Koreans were given limited rights, so thousands of them moved again in the 1970s and ‘80s. Many of those immigrants came to Chicago and re-established their Korean-inspired Chinese restaurants in places like the Northwest Side’s Albany Park neighborhood. It’s here, sometime in the mid-1980s, that two chefs took a traditional dish from their home province and transformed it into a Chicago classic.  

We traced the history of gam pong gi wings back to two Chinese-Korean chefs: Hsing-Tseng of Peking Mandarin and Nai Tiao of Great Sea. (WBEZ/Katherine Nagasawa)

The first chef was Hsing-Tseng Kao, who opened Peking Mandarin on Lawrence Avenue in 1983. (He’s retired and shy, so we learned details of his story from his nephew Roger Kao, who today happens to own Great Beijing at Pratt Avenue and Lincoln Avenue in Lincolnwood.) Roger explains that, for years, his uncle Hsing-Tseng had been cooking a traditional Shandong-style dish called gam pong gi, which in Koreanized Chinese means “dry stir-fried chicken.” It featured deep-fried pieces of chicken (from the whole bird or just boneless nubbins) tossed with hot chilis and garlic.

But then one day, Hsing-Tseng had an idea: Make the dish with just chicken wings. Why wings? Because the Chinese have always prized this tasty part. In 1980s America, though, they were seen as cheap junk cuts — so much so that some folks threw them away.

“This was in 1983, and my uncle thought this was too waste-y,” says Roger Kao. “So he started to find something to not waste this part. Then he created these, and it became very popular. So everybody has the wings now.”

But the evolution didn’t end there. Just a few blocks east of Hsing-Tseng’s restaurant on Lawrence Avenue was another Korean-inspired Chinese restaurant called Great Sea. Jennifer Tiao says that’s where her father, Nai Tiao, had been doing some tinkering of his own.

Gam pong gi wings were originally supposed to be dry and served fried with no sauce [although some recipes include a little sauce],” Tiao says. “My dad was like, ‘The sauce is so good. Why not make a whole bunch of it so you can dip it in and eat it?’”

Gam pong gi sauce for sale at Great Sea restaurant on Lawrence Ave. (WBEZ/Monica Eng)

So Nai Tiao added a generous gush of sweet, chili-flecked sauce that would eventually become a key aspect of the Chicago dish. (The sauce became popular enough that, today, Great Sea even sells it at the counter.)

The combo of wings and sauce would help catapult Great Sea into a regional foodie destination. But not before Nai Tiao added one more innovation: the lollipop handle.

“My mom and dad loved eating wings,” Jennifer Tiao says of her now-retired parents. “But [dad] wanted to make it cleaner and easier. So he [did so] by pushing all the meat down on the bone so you have a kind of handle.”

To get that handle, she explains, you need to go through a three-step process. “We’d break two parts of the joint, and then cut each section of the wing, and then the tip is thrown out.”

The frenching process was so time-consuming that Jennifer and her sister Karen Lim initially skipped it when they opened their own wing joint, Take Me Out, in Pilsen. But customer demand for the lollipop style proved too great and the restaurant eventually returned to it.

Today, both Great Sea and Take Me Out have been bought by another Chinese-Korean family. But both retain their loyal followings for a dish that remains a top seller on both menus — and beyond.

Immigrant innovation

This little invention forged in Albany Park kitchens has become a nationwide culinary hit. Even celebrity foodie Guy Fieri has a recipe for these chicken lollipops.

Still, it’s hard to imagine the dish being invented today. Those wings that were so cheap in the ‘80s are now the most expensive part of the chicken (by the pound). The Buffalo wing craze and chicken wing chain restaurants are partly to blame for that.

Thrifty immigrant chefs would probably skip the wings these days. But that proverbial chicken has left the barn. Gam pong gi wings are now so popular that people are willing to pay well more than a dollar per wing for Tiao and Kao’s creation.  

Stories like this play out in so many of the dishes we researched for our original story, that we’re beginning to see a similar recipe emerge. To make a successful Chicago-invented food, just mix one part traditional recipe with two parts thrifty local ingredients and a large scoop of immigrant ingenuity.

Monica Eng is a WBEZ food and health reporter. Follow her at @monicaeng or write to her at meng@wbez.org