The Japanese Delicacy (XI): Yakitori

Yakitori is a tapas-style food relatively unknown to the world but quite popular in Japan. Unlike sushi or ramen, yakitori is not the food that comes to mind immediately when it comes to Japanese cuisine. However, this Japanese-style kebab is undoubtedly delicious!

What is Yakitori


Yakitori literally meaning “grilled [birds/chicken]” is from the Japanese words yaki (grill) and tori (birds/chicken). It refers to the skewers made from bite-sized pieces of meat from various parts of the chicken, such as the breast, thighs, skin, and other internal organs. In Japan, many restaurants specialize in yakitori, and most izakaya (Japanese bars) provide yakitori. For many people, yakitori is one of the most delicious izakaya foods. It is an affordable and delicious pairing food with cold beer, sake, and other alcoholic beverages.

In restaurants, chefs often prepare yakitori on a central grill surrounded by bar seating. Customers can enjoy their meal while watching the chicken being grilled in front of them. Traditionally, yakitori is cooked over binchotan (a type of Japanese white charcoal), which is a clean heat source adding no odor to the skewers. The temperature of the grill stays low to make the meat cook slowly. The chef will constantly rotate the meat to achieve the perfect texture.

Yakitori is mainly seasoned with salt or tare. Tare is a sauce made of mirin (Japanese rice wine), sugar, soy sauce, sake, and various spices. Each restaurant has its own secret recipe. Partway through grilling, yakitori is often basted or brushed with this sauce to infuse the tare in the meat. The sweet and salty tare elevates the savory chicken flavor.

History of Yakitori


Since the introduction of Buddhism to Japan, eating meat has been considered a disapproving custom. In the Heian period (794-1185),  people were not allowed to consume chickens so they hunted wild birds instead. In the Muromachi period (1336-1573), the Japanese invented the “bird skewers.” According to historical records, the term "yakitori" appeared first in the Edo period. The locals created the original form of the present yakitori, which was part of the dinner set offered to the lord.

Eating meat gradually became a new fashion in Japan as Western culture was introduced to Japan as part of the Meiji Restoration. In the early Showa period (1926-1989), chicken was an expensive ingredient and was offered exclusively in restaurants. Ordinary people could only consume the parts of the chicken that were not used in restaurants. These unused parts were grilled on skewers and sold at stalls, which was the origin of today's yakitori. This new snack became popular for being easy to carry and requiring no chopsticks. Later, with the introduction of broilers from the United States, chicken became an affordable ingredient and yakitori restaurants increased.

Types of Yakitori


Negima: It is one of the most popular types of yakitori. Chicken thigh is cut into bite-sized pieces and alternated with pieces of spring onion.

Momo: It is made up of pieces of thigh meat.

Torikawa/Kawa: Juicy and fatty chicken skin are cut into strips and grilled until crispy.

Tsukune: Meatballs consist of minced chicken, egg, vegetables, potato starch, and spices. In some recipes, chopped cartilage will be added to the mixture. They can be formed into multiple small balls or a long patty.

Reba: It is a smooth and juicy chicken liver. It’s known for its unique supple texture and nourishing vitamins.

Hatsu: The grilled chicken hearts are tender and juicy.

Saygimo: The grilled chicken kidneys are chewy and delicate.

Bonjiri: After grilling, the chicken tail is crisp on the outside and juicy on the inside.

Tebasaki: Chicken Wings are often grilled to a crisp and enjoyed with salt.

Seseri: The neck meat is fatty and firm.

Nankotsu: It is chicken cartilage. There is not much meat attached to the soft bone but it is really crunchy.

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