Article updated on May 25, 2020
Text & photos: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
Yakitori (やきとり) have become famous outside of Japan, and are often proposed in sushi restaurants all over the world. But in Japan, excelling is the norm, and restaurants tend to be ultra-specialised to allow the chef to master his skills. Basically, a yakitori is skewered chicken parts cooked over a charcoal fire. In practice, many different parts of the chicken can be ordered leading to a wide variety of choices, especially when considering non-chicken options such as beef, pork and vegetables and even quail and duck in the more upscale places. This pre-dinner snack often accompanied by a cold beer is best enjoyed in the low-key and often loud atmosphere of a yakitori-ya (焼き鳥屋) or izakaya (Japanese-style pubs).
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If you like… grilled meat,
…you will love yakitori!
The origins of yakitori
Yakitori means grilled bird and appeared in Japan rather late during the 19th century. Indeed, eating meat was not very popular as Buddhism prescribed a vegetarian diet. Moreover, eating cattle and pigs was simply forbidden as they were considered a workforce on farms. Wild birds were hunted a little, but eating meat became more popular with the European and American influences during the Meiji Period (1868-1912). Chicken started appearing on menus of luxury restaurants as an exclusive dish. Common people enjoyed its unused parts such as cartilage and tendons: grilled on skewers and sold at yatai, this is the origin of today’s yakitori. Its convenient serving style on skewers and affordability have made them a popular snack until today.
Yakitori: what to order
Yakitori options revolve mainly around chicken. Going from the mainstream to the adventurous: thigh (momo: もも), chicken thigh with Japanese leek (negima: ねぎま), wings (teba: 手羽), chicken breast (sasami: ささみ), chicken meatballs with sweet sauce (tsukune: つくね), chicken neck meat (seseri: せせり), skin (kawa: かわ), cartilage (nankotsu: なんこつ), chicken liver (kimo: きも), gizzard (sunagimo: 砂肝), heart (hatsu: ハート)…
There are two main marinades for yakitori: shio (salt based) or tare (a sweetened barbecue sauce made of sweet soy sauce and mirin). The skewer is dipped in one of them before being cooked on charcoals.
The most popular vegetable options that are also skewered and roasted are small green peppers (shishito), shiitake mushrooms, cherry tomatoes wrapped in bacon or pork rib meat (tomato-maki) and asparagus wrapped in bacon (asupara-bacon).
Plates of assorted yakitori can be ordered: yakitori moriawase. In case you’d rather avoid the giblets, ask for it without the inner parts (naizo).
If you want to make a full meal of your yakitori experience, you can order chazuke (a mixture of tea and rice) or yaki-onigiri (grilled rice balls) as more filling options to complete your meal.
- It is better to order the yakitori little by little to enjoy them hot.
- Condiments such as mixed spices (shichimi togarashi: 七味唐辛子), sansho pepper (山椒) and wasabi are found on the table or counter. There are no set rules: feel free to experiment with them to see what you like. However, before adding condiments, try the freshly made yakitori to not doubt the chef too much!
- The most delicious way to eat yakitori is straight from the skewer. In stylish places, the food may be slid on into the plate and this is what should be done obviously should you want to share it with others.
- By the condiments, there is an empty cup for you to dispose of your bamboo stick and to not have to put it back in your plate.
- As usual, the counter is always the best place to seat to observe the chef cook!
A typical yakitori experience
Attracted by the smoky and savoury smell, we walk towards its point of origin. Smoke coming from the vent, a small red Japanese paper lantern by the entrance, the character for tori, 鳥, meaning bird: there is no doubt, we are in front of a yakitori-ya. The small curtains hang by the door meaning it is open. We enter.
It does not look like much. On our left, patrons are having beers and yakitori seated on a tatami mat at a low table. In front of us, 5 stools are pushed up against a counter behind which the chef is at work. While his seriousness transmits how focused he is on cooking the skewers to perfection, customers are engaged in lively discussions and the atmosphere is low-key while they enjoy snacks and beers after work.
We order the skewers, and the chef dips some in the tare sauce, others in the salt-based one. He knows what works best for each specific part of the chicken. The delicious smell emanates from the grill. He disposes the yakitori in front of us, perfectly seasoned, perfectly cooked… Enjoy!
Where to enjoy yakitori in Japan: yakitori-ya is the place to go to enjoy the low-key atmosphere: look for 鳥 & just follow the smell! In Tokyo, Omoide Yokocho, Shinbashi and Koenji areas are famous for it!
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