Located at Oregon’s eastern border in Malheur County amid sprawling sugar beet, potato and onion fields, Ontario is a quiet small town with an equally quiet dining scene. But among locals, two words quickly conjure a look of happy familiarity and an appetite: mafa chicken.
Sometimes spelled ‘mah fah’ or ‘mah fry’ chicken, this battered and fried chicken is savory and crunchy. Traditionally served on the bone in golf-ball-size portions but now often made from boneless cutlets, it’s popular throughout the area. As Ontario resident Mike Iseri says, “It’s been in our community for a long time. It’s very unique to Ontario. If you’ve lived here for a while, you know what it is.”
For those who grew up here — like me — mafa chicken was indeed part of the food culture. Students shared homemade mafa chicken with eager classmates on lunch breaks. It’s as delicious cold as it is freshly fried. On a school bus headed to Baker City for an out-of-town soccer game, a teammate would procure a bag of golden fried boneless chicken from a cooler and share the wealth, bringing out sweet and savory rice balls filled with umeboshi (Japanese pickled plum) to go with every crispy, savory, satisfying bite.
The meal fed more than physical hunger; it connected teammates, family and friends to Ontario’s Japanese-American culture.
A Local Favorite Is Born
Ontario residents remember Pil Sugai as the creator of mafa chicken. As resident Jan Iseri recalls, Pil, who was Chinese American, was married to Don Sugai, who was Japanese American. Don opened the Eastside Cafe and Lounge in Ontario with his brothers, Art and Tom, in the late 1940s, following the closure of Japanese internment camps and an influx of people of Japanese descent into the area. Pil was the chef behind many of the dishes at the popular, now-closed Chinese-Japanese restaurant — including mafa chicken.
Fortunately, the dish didn’t disappear when Eastside closed in the 1980s. As former Ontario resident and restaurateur Tom Ogawa relates, “When the restaurant closed, they gave the recipe to my grandma and a couple of other ladies.” Pil’s recipe became part of Japanese-American cuisine in Ontario and was soon a staple at church events, bazaars and holiday celebrations. Ogawa went on to serve mafa chicken in rice and noodle bowls with teriyaki sauce at the now-closed Ogawa’s Teriyaki Hut.
Over the years the recipe has seen slight variations. Visit other parts of Oregon and you might see similar dishes called marfar or another variation on the name. But one ingredient ties mafa to its Ontario roots. As Mike Iseri says, “Some people use light meat, some use dark meat. Some leave the skin on, some don’t. Everybody has a little variation. The common thing is the main ingredient — funyu, a fermented bean curd.”
Call it Ontario’s best-kept secret — despite local popularity, you rarely see it outside of the region.
Follow the Mafa Flavor
Mafa is usually on the menu at annual community celebrations like the Ontario Community Church’s Harvest Bazaar in November. It’s also historically been a staple alongside udon and chow mein at the Idaho-Oregon Buddhist Temple’s Obon Festival in August. During the first week of June, you may find it at America’s Global Village Festival, an annual celebration of Ontario’s diversity.
Year-round, mafa chicken is a fixture on the menu at Matsy’s, a local restaurant that offers mafa chicken for lunch and dinner. You can also order it at Far East Restaurant, a Japanese and Chinese eatery in Ontario.
Looking for the old-school version? Now with new owners, Ogawa’s has relocated just a stone’s throw away from Ontario over the Oregon border in Fruitland, Idaho, where it continues to feature mafa chicken. If you’re in Hood River — where Tom Ogawa now resides with his classic recipe — order mafa chicken at Wicked Sushi, Burgers & Bowls, where it is served with house-made teriyaki sauce, vegetables and rice or yakisoba noodles.
More to Explore
To learn more about the history and culture of Japanese Americans in Ontario, visit Four Rivers Cultural Center and Museum, which tells the story of this enduring community. After many Japanese Americans in the Pacific Northwest were forced to leave everything and relocate to internment camps during World War II, Ontario’s mayor invited them back to resettle in the town.
After exploring the museum’s exhibit of personal stories and collections, step outside to take in the beauty of Hikaru Mizu, a Japanese garden and memorial. With a meditation garden and koi-fish pond, this is the second-largest Japanese garden in Oregon.
While you’re in town enjoying the mafa chicken, take some time to experience Ontario’s open roads and high-desert scenery. With hiking access to the Owyhee Canyonlands and tributaries to the Snake River, Ontario provides ample opportunities for outdoor exploration and adventure. (Pro tip: Friends of the Owyhee, an outdoors-advocacy group in Ontario, hosts regular excursions to the Owyhees.) The Ontario State Recreation Site along the river is great for spying wildlife like blue heron, deer and river otters.
A Taste of Community
At the Four Rivers Cultural Center and Museum gift shop, take home a cookbook that includes a recipe for the famous dish as the perfect souvenir.
(From “A Taste of the Orient” by the Nisei Woman’s Society of Christian Service, 1967, slightly reformatted and used with permission from the Four Rivers Cultural Center.)
5 cubes funyu (Japanese fermented tofu, available at Japanese markets)
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp. ginger powder
1 tsp. garlic salt
1/2 cup soy sauce
1 fryer chicken, cut into small pieces
Blend the funyu into a smooth consistency. Mix the funyu, sugar, ginger powder, garlic salt, soy sauce and egg together. Marinate the chicken for one to two hours in the sauce. Drain chicken, dip in flour and deep-fry in oil. Enjoy with rice or yakisoba noodles.