​Kaptain Karaage: The Container King

​Kaptain Karaage: The Container King

Posted by Emily on 31st Jan 2024

While its setting may be low-key on a side street off the bustling Tollcross junction in the southwestern part of Edinburgh's city centre, Kaptain Karaage is anything but. Its industrial shipping container kitchen, piercing pink colour and bold flavours are making a big impact on the street food scene in this part of the city.

Inspired by the Japanese street food favourite chicken karaage, this hidden gem is the creation of Balraj Singh, chef, food fanatic and son of Scottish celebrity chef Tony Singh. It blends flavours and techniques that captured Balraj’s tastebuds while taking in a culinary tour of Asia.

Many of the dishes have developed organically in Balraj’s kitchen at home, including its signature dish and biggest seller, chicken karaage: bite-sized pieces of chicken marinated in Kaptain Karaage’s unique blend of Japanese spices and triple-fried for ultra crispiness.

112,113,118,122,125,126,131,116

A cauliflower alternative for vegetarians and vegans is said to rival its poultry equivalent in terms of taste, while its classic rice bowls, Wagyu beef hot dogs, yakitori chicken skewers and Okonomiyaki - traditional Japanese pancakes - are big hitters too, bringing the taste of Tokyo to Tollcross. There’s even room in this compact container to produce sides, such as loaded fries and edamame beans, and a small selection of desserts.

Open five days a week, Tuesday through to Saturday, Kaptain Karaage is a concept that locals craving quality food on the go have embraced, spending an average of £10 each visit. The business is selling around 110kgs of chicken a week, a huge uplift from the 10kg a week it was serving when it first opened two and a half years ago.

“I would say the first six months were difficult just because of the location,” says Balraj. “We're off a side street that people wouldn't normally walk down where it’s so busy with a fire station and a school. But those exact same things helped us after those six months because we’ve become closer to the community, especially the school. On a Thursday and Friday, I'd say a majority of my customer base is the primary school kids and their parents.”

To create the unique finish and flavour that karaage chicken is famous for, Balraj uses Ceres Alpha Coater before frying.

112,113,118,122,125,126,131,116

“I would say I went through five different coatings before we got to the one we now use. A few of the others would catch a bit early with the fry time and the ingredients we use so were coming out a bit darker than I would have liked, especially when using fresh oil. This one is honestly the perfect mix. The flavour that Ceres has managed to curate within that and the crispness it gives the chicken is something else. We three times fry the chicken - as that’s how karaage is meant to be done - and the Alpha Coater gives this almost glass-like crisp on the outside. I couldn't suggest anything else.”

Balraj also uses it to ensure its cauliflower karaage has the same consistently crispy bite. Balraj adds: “Depending on the cauliflower, it can stick or not stick to the batter so the Alpha Coater helps with that and gives it a nice puffy, crisp and crunchy coating.”

Mindful of catering for the growing number of gluten free customers, Balraj uses Ceres Gluten Free Batter Mix for its savoury Japanese pancakes, which he packs full of vegetables and drizzles over its signature house sauces.

“The Ceres Gluten Free Batter is the best consistency and quality-wise. It’s the best flour that I've ever used for gluten free, I would say.”

It’s an impressive menu for a small, informal space and it’s all taken care of by Balraj who works the container himself, utilising only three standalone fryers, a flat-top grill and a rice cooker.

It was the simplicity of the container concept that appealed to Balraj, whose dad bought the land and installed containers rather than build a permanent site. This has provided homes for two further street food outlets.

“The shipping containers are great for space and I would say cost-wise, especially with regards to building,” says Balraj. “We’ve managed to get three businesses in that one location, which has been much better than just one that may or may not struggle on its own."

112,113,118,122,125,126,131,116

An attractive proposition for small independent street food traders and start-ups seeking a short lease to test the waters with a pop-up, the container concept has provided a launch pad for two businesses already which have since expanded to larger premises and gone on to open at multiple locations.

“When we started, my dad had Radge Chaat serving Indian street food, which has since moved to Bonnie & Wild Market, Edinburgh’s first food hall,” explains Balraj. “Exile Cooks opened up as well with us at the same time and they’ve done so well that they could move to a different location and now do a few other bits and bobs as there are quite a large group of them.

“At the moment, we’ve got Bubble Tea here and a Portuguese bakery called Pastel De Nata, which is great because it's a different range of tastes for everyone and it brings more customers to the area. My customers go to them and their customers come to me, which allows us to grow a lot more easily too. Also, if I don’t want to make desserts one day, I can say to my customers to go next door!”

In the last two and a half years, Balraj has witnessed an explosion in street food of all types, but in particular Japanese cuisine, with five or six outlets around him offering slightly different takes. A reflection of the popularity of this informal way of eating, Balraj believes it’s an exciting time to be in food.

“Food culture is big, everyone is always trying different things and especially with social media you see all these trends popping up. So I'd say everyone's looking to explore more in the past year when it comes to their food.

“Having said that it’s so easy to get food, especially in these bigger cities, that for operators it's more of a fight to be different, as well as consistently good. You want to have a reputation for good flavours, good food and a good price.”

With operators currently facing multiple pressures, Balraj cites his biggest challenge not being rising costs, staff shortages or rent rises, but keeping his customer base growing. It’s something he’s tackled by constantly evolving: joining delivery apps, launching his sauces in take-home bottles, and keeping an eye on what others are doing around him.

“I’m currently taking inspiration from a place in Vietnam called 4P’s,” says Balraj. “It was created by an Italian guy who was a rocket scientist who moved to Vietnam to make pizza. He makes his own Mozzarella and everything and he's got these weird and wonderful flavours like takoyaki pizza and such. I’d love to try something similar to that next but, I will say for now, our core menu is great and it’s time to focus on some cocktails and drinks to go with it!”

112,113,118,122,125,126,131,116