A Taste of Japan: Yakitori
In Japan, there’s nothing that will get mouths watering faster than the sizzle and smoke of yakitori. Yakitori, or “grilled chicken,” is skewers of chicken or chicken parts (like skin, liver or gizzards), dipped in a delicious basting sauce, then grilled.
The basting sauce, or tare (tah-ray), is a trade secret of each restaurant and is usually made with a combination of soy sauce, mirin (Japanese sweet cooking sake), sake and sugar. That sweet soy sauce mixture sends up delicious aromas as the skewers hit the grill, the sugars caramelizing on the chicken.
To make yakitori, the chicken is grilled just until the juices begin to flow. Then the skewers are dipped in the tare and returned to the grill. With each successive dipping, the grilled chicken juices drip into the tare, improving its flavor.
Alternatively, skewers are simply sprinkled with salt (shio).
You can give your yakitori another layer of flavor with shichimi togarashi, a seven spice red pepper mixture, to sprinkle on the yakitori at the table.
Yakitori can be a budget dish or part of a much more elevated dining experience, as the meal we enjoyed Saturday night at Wabiya Korekido, a charming restaurant in the Gion area of Kyoto. The chickens used in the yakitori are specially bred varieties, raised with careful attention to what they eat and how they are raised. The yakitori, succulent and meaty, seasoned simply with salt and grilled to perfection, tastes completely unlike American supermarket chicken and more like free-range birds we can get in the U.S.
The simple stick of yakitori was part of nine utterly delicious little courses, including a duck meatball accompanied by a raw organic egg yolk, crisp vegetables served on ice with a miso sauce, and clear chicken broth that was bursting with the essence of chicken flavor.
Here is a version of the more plebeian yakitori you can make at home. I've used large skewers to make the grilling go faster, but you can skewer fewer pieces for a nicer look.
1/2 cup soy naturally brewed soy sauce
3 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons sake
2 tablespoons mirin (Japanese sweet cooking sake)
1 small onion,cut in 1-inch wedges
1-1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut in 1-inch cubes
To make sauce: In medium saucepan combine soy sauce, sugar, sake and mirin and bring to a simmer. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until sugar dissolves and sauce is slightly thicker, about 5 minutes.
Separate the onion wedges so you have two layers of onion in every piece. Using 9- or 10-inch bamboo skewers, thread the chicken cubes, alternating with two pieces of onion between each chicken cube.
Heat grill until hot, place skewers on the grill, turning once, until the chicken is opaque and the juices begin to flow. Dip skewers in sauce or brush sauce on with a pastry brush, and return to the grill. Grill, turning and basting several times, until the chicken is just cooked and the onion begins to char, about 5 minutes.
Makes about 10 skewers.
- Use, wider, flat bamboo skewers to keep the food from twisting on the grill.
- To keep the exposed skewer ends from burning, slide a folded strip of aluminum foil under the skewer ends to shade them from the heat of the grill.
- If desired, serve yakitori with shichimi togarashi, a seven spice red pepper blend, available at Japanese grocery stores.
For more about Japan, please follow my trip here on the Special Fork blog, as well as on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.
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