As promised – a really good Yakitori recipe. Warning, this is a long – but interesting recipe blog.
Yakitori is one of those things that people just take for granted, don’t like or have a passion for. I am in the latter category.
Being a foodie makes me passionate about my daily feed in any case.
Yakitori is one of those things – that if you have ever had it made properly – you will never settle or be satisfied with substitutes or below par offerings.
It is much like sushi in that regard, which is another food I have a great passion for, but that is a whole other topic.
Yakitori isn’t a complicated dish, but needs attention payed to the particular ingredients, and timing with cooking to produce a really good skewer.
Not enough time and you have undercooked yakitori, which most would classify as “yuk-a-tori”, and conversely if the yakitori is overcooked it is rubbery and nearly inedible in my book.
Lets start off with a bit of background about Yakitori – this is probably more than you ever wanted to know.
Yakitori is basically skewers of chicken dipped in tare sauce, that is then grilled over hot charcoals, and served with cold beer.
Not too difficult to see the appeal of such a food offering with a beer to a hungry student, commuter, worker or businessman or hurried “salaryman”.
Yakitori-ya or shops generally smallish affairs. More often than not they consist of just five or six stools pushed up against a counter. Clouds of aromatic smoke waft off the grill and into the street to lure hungry passersby. The wood most commonly used is bincho charcoal (more on this later) and kashi or white oak which is less expensive.
Even at the more upscale yakitori-ya less emphasis is made on decor and more on providing great yakitori and a convivial and lively atmosphere.
Yakitori-ya can be recognized by small red lanterns in front of stands, with the character for Tori – or bird. Another clue to finding a yakitori-ya is the clouds of fragrant smoke coming from the shop.
Two of the main factors that set one yakitori-ya apart from the next and create a great deal of fierce competition between shops are the ingredients in the Tare and the quality of the charcoal used for grilling.
Hard, aromatic charcoal – such as bincho – produces the best results, better than cheaper charcoals and far better than gas or electric grills.
Some places use free-range chicken- known as jidori , which is tougher than ordinary chicken but also more flavorful. In this case I find flavorful better than the mushy watery chicken that is served in many restaurants in the US.
Although other foods are served, chicken is the mainstay of the yakitori-ya.
Morsels of chicken are skewered by themselves or interspersed with pieces of leek or other vegetables. Other dishes include chicken wings, tender white-meat chicken breast fillets.
Sasami are dark meat chicken leg and thigh pieces, chicken livers and other organs, ground-chicken meatballs, and even chicken skin are served as well.
Non-chicken items include large mushrooms, green peppers, ginkgo nuts and small quail eggs.
Food in yakitori-ya usually comes on skewers, with a minimum of two skewers per order. Before it’s grilled, the food is dipped into either a sweetish soy-based sauce – Tare or salt called – shio or shiotori.
You can also sprinkle your yakitori with shichimi which is a mixture of red pepper and six other spices. Shichimi is easy to find in Asian store or on the Internet.
There’s usually a handy receptacle on the counter where you can deposit the empty skewers.
Some of the upscale places have a wider variety of choices, with more exotic delicacies like asparagus, rabbit or sparrow, but generally smaller restaurants and stands limit themselves to the basics. Most patrons drink beer with their yakitori, although soft drinks are also available.
Yakitori was first recognized as a dish in Japan in the middle of the Edo Era (1604-1868) when the meat of wild birds such as ducks, quails and pigeons, was cooked.
The people who originated the modern style of eating Yakitori were farmers who visited the Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine in Kyoto to pray for a prosperous harvest. On the road traveling to the Shrine, the farmers would cook and eat small birds such as sparrows which the farmers considered nuisances because they ruined the rice crops. Holding a Yakitori skewer in the hands and eating the meat was easy while walking along the road, and the dish became popular.
In the Meiji Era (1868-1912), Yakitori was widely accepted as a folk dish. Wild fowl was served only at expensive restaurants, while lower quality meat, bones, and organs became common dishes sold at street stands. Due to its reasonable price and wide availability, Yakitori became an essential part of folk food culture.
In 1923, the Great Kanto Earthquake struck Tokyo, destroying homes and requiring people to take meals outdoors. The cooking of Yakitori, which was easy and sanitary to prepare with only make-shift cooking utensils, further entrenched Yakitori in Japanese cuisine.
In the Showa Era (1965-1974), the quality of Yakitori improved due to the growth in industrialized chicken farming. Some shops specialized in jidori chickens raised in a certain place and in a certain method while others specialized by adopting an original cooking method or seasoning.
Yakitori business became a big business and permanently a part of Japanese cuisine.
So there you have the basics of Yakitori. Again, probably more than you ever wanted to know about it.
Yakitori is ideal for small intimate parties, and cocktails because of its nature.
For some reason it is a food when consumed with alcohol like beer or cocktails, tends to create a sense of conviviality and chat and is therefore an excellent Tiki party food.
Now to preparing really good Yakitori
Lets start off with the basic ingredients. The most logical jumping-off spot would be the Tori or Mr. Chicken.
For the purposes of this recipe, I will stay with chicken meat, and not discuss the use of organ meats such as chicken liver for clarity.
Mr. Chicken or Tori
I would recommend finding an organic free ranged chicken, and I suggest getting thighs and legs. Breast meat is OK, but for me the breast meat lacks the flavor of the dark meat such as thighs and legs have. Seek out the best chicken available, not just the standard supermarket plastic wrapped chicken.
When you are ready to begin prepping the chicken, cut the meat from the legs and thighs into bite-sized pieces removing extraneous gristle or fat.
In Japan, some yakitori-ya leave the skin on the meat, others remove it.
Leaving the skin on makes for a moister piece of tori, however the skin does have a distinct tendancy to catch fire over hot coals and must be very carefully tended to.
If you are experienced at it, then you will realize the trick…if you leave the skin on the tori, then you have to keep it moving around, and can’t allow it to set in one place to create a nasty flare-up and flaming yakitori skewer.
For someone new to making yakitori, I would recommend removing the skin until you have down the timing of cooking yakitori over live hardwood coals, which burn hotter than standard charcoal briquettes.
So lets say we use 8-10 organic free-range chicken thighs – if you can get them, do the best you can. If you must use standard grocery store chicken, get the freshest possible, and clean them well.
This would be generally 2-3 plastic wrapped trays of thighs.
After you have skinned and cut the chicken off the bone into bite sized pieces, fill a large bowl with cold water, and add a good palmful of sea salt, and give it a small squeeze of lemon.
*Important Note: It is really important to try to cut the chicken, into as uniform of cubes as possible. You don’t want a mix of thin cubes, and thick cubes. You could have difficulty later if you don’t cut the cubes in as uniform of size as possible. You want them all to cook thorougly at the same time. The voice of experience speaks.
Put the cut up chicken pieces in this, and let them set for a few minutes and agitate them around. This is to clean and freshen the chicken. Drain the chicken pieces and pat them thoroughly dry with paper towels.
Don’t leave them wet or setting in water. They need to be as dryed off as possible, so they will absorb the Tare and wood smoke.
Now we come to the most important part of the preparation – the ingredient other than the tori or chicken that gives Yakitori its signature flavor.
Forget bottled teriyaki sauce. This is what you will need.
8-10 chicken wings – I would use two packs and do, because making the Tare with these, yields some really kickass wings that are almost good enough to make in their own right. Trust me…you will love nibbling on these little wings.
2 cups of sake – needn’t be fancy or expensive stuff. In fact I recommend the ubiquitous Gekkeikan Sake. You could go fancy, but I think the finer and subtle taste qualities of the premium and expensive brands of sake would be wasted for this application in my own opinion, because the smoke of the charcoal and cooking would eradicate the delicate taste of the finer sake.
Strong flavored sake stands up better to cooking, just as in my opinion, tamari holds its flavor better than shoyu or standard soy sauce.
2 cups of mirin – sweet cooking wine, I find Kikkoman Kotterin is fine. You can find “real” mirin as well. As far as a more gourmet mirin, you can try Takara Mirin, which is available from online sources.
6 tablespoons of sugar – I prefer turbinado raw sugar from Hawaii.
2 cups of tamari shoyu or soy sauce
Here is where the foodie begins to fuss…I prefer – when I am going to the trouble of making Yakitori to get the best ingredients possible. You could use plain old Kikkoman shoyu or Yamasa brand if your feeling cheap.
My recommendation is San-J Organic Tamari. It is fairly easy to find and not too expensive, and is a very good shoyu, and a good balance of flavor, gourmet taste and not overly expensive. In my own opinion it is the best for yakitori and is my strongly suggested recommendation.
To give a tiny bit of background, tamari is soy sauce…but it is fermented differently than ordinary soy sauce, and it is richer and smoother in taste. It also holds its flavor and does not break down during long cooking times or at high temperatures like ordinary soy sauce because of its particular qualities.
Another brand that is good is Ohsawa Organic Nama Shoyu. It is unpasteurized soy sauce.
As far as Japanese shoyu – Johsen shoyu is said by many to be the best.
Now if you want to go all out, and get “Galloping Gourmet”, you can choose the Imperial Shoyu that graces the Japanese Imperial families table.
It is called Goyogura Shoyu and it is available HERE.
Goyogura is fermented only from Japanese soy beans, wheat, and salt and bottled after a year’s production cycle.
Slightly thicker and definitely more intensely flavored than the normal soy sauce, it is an official Imperial Household Warrant product. It is rarely seen in even the most prestigious stores in Japan.
It is on backorder much of the time so when you see it available you must snap it up.
At the same link you will find 2 other shoyu that are very upscale and of superior quality.
One is Marumata Owarino Tamari.
The other is Kanro Shoyu Soy Sauce of Mitobishi.
I would not recommend these for making tare however. The taste is excellent, but its subtle delicacy was custom designed for putting on tofu or for dipping sushi or sashimi in, not for cooking over high temperature.
OK, after my bit of foodie digression back to Tare making…
Wash and dry the chicken wings. You can leave them whole or give em a chop as you please.
Put them on a pan and then put them under a broiler until they are charred over about half of their surface.
While that is happening, pour the sake and mirin in a good sized pot, and bring to a boil.
Reduce the heat and add the sugar and simmer until the sugar dissolves.
Now add the shoyu and charred wings and bring the entire pot of tare to the boil.
Turn down to medium and simmer from 30 minutes to an hour.
You will know that you have a good Tare when it becomes thickened and looks glossy.
Strain the Tare through cheesecloth in a strainer or colander, into a heat proof container.
Reserve the shoyu-braised chicken wings – OMG, they are absolutely delicious and are great to snack on with a beer.
They are one of the perks of going to the extra trouble of making a great Yakitori Tare basting sauce.
These are almost worth making using this preparation in their own right. Once they have simmered, they will be nice and brown from the Tare…all you need to is pop them under a broiler for a minute, and crisp the skins. We made a batch of tare last night and gobbled up all of the wings, and are thinking about getting more wings and using the tare again to repeat the wing recipe – they are that good.
Allow the Tare to come to room temperature and then refrigerate it.
You can keep it for up to a month. Reheat the Tare before using and once every week between uses.
Next ingredient is Japanese green onion called naganegi. Naganegi can be found sporadically at Asian grocery stores. They are usually labeled “long onions”, and you can tell them by their straight stalks and they are usually double the size of ordinary green onions. If you go to a local Vietnamese grocery store as I frequently do for my Asian ingredients, you will occasionally and seasonally find naganegi onions and they are called “hanh ta” (sorry I had to omit the accent over the a in the word hanh as the damn website interface thingie doesn’t like accent marks).
If you are unable to find naganegi or hanh ta, don’t try substituting plain green onions.
It would be better to omit the onion element all together than to try to use plain green onions – although some may disagree with that statement.
They are too strong in my opinion, and are difficult to thread on the bamboo skewers with the chicken, so the next best substitute is to find the smallest leeks you can and use the white parts only sliced up to put on the Yakitori skewers. Just wash the leeks really well. They accumulate a lot of dirt as they grow.
Now that we have discussed the ingredients and making Tare basting sauce we will turn to the hardware needed to make really great Yakitori.
There are multiple ways that yakitori can be successfully prepared – from a normal charcoal or gas grill. I own and currently use a cast iron hibachi. Well if I am telling the truth, I own a herd of 3 other grills – my beloved Weber kettle, another charcoal grill, a gas grill and a smoker as well as the cast iron hibachi, yep – I am a BBQ grill whore… I think its a man “thang”, like the “Mancave” and the instinctual need for control of the TV remote.
The little cast iron hibachis work well because cast iron is a superior substance at retaining heat.
Forget the little cheapo aluminum hibachis..well many years ago, I will embarassedly admit, I used a cheap-ass aluminum hibachi and it was barely tolerable. Gas grills are admittedly handy, but if you try to make authentic Yakitori on it – even with a smoker box – something just gets lost in translation.
However, what is far preferable in my opinion, is a hibachi constructed of high fired ceramic clay. The advantage in this hibachi is that the fired clay helps maintain a constant grilling temperature. It is very similar to the actual Japanese street grill designs with adjustable ventilation. Here is a picture of the clay hibachi.
The principle of the clay oven and its distinct advantages can also be seen in the Indian tandoor clay oven, and the modern “Big Green Egg” which is a clay lined barbeque that has quite a number of devoted and loyal fans worldwide. However, these type of ovens are rather expensive, and require some substantial maintenance which I am not a fan of.
While these are both versatile and unique barbeque grills, in my own opinion the best choice for grilling Yakitori is the simpler cast iron or clay hibachi from my own experience.
This is the next critical element in making good Yakitori.
The hardwood charcoal traditionally used for Yakitori grilling is called bincho.
Bincho charcoal has been used since ancient times. It supposedly originiated in the eighth century, but little is known about its early history. During the seventeenth century, Bichuya Chozaemon (Bi-cho), a charcoal wholesaler from Tanabe, Kishu prefecture, named this special charcoal “Bincho charcoal” and sold it throughout Edo, the former name of Tokyo. From that time on, Bincho charcoal became popular and has been distributed all over Japan. This is the history of the name, Bincho charcoal. Nowadays, Bincho charcoal is valued for its high quality not only in Japan but also around the world. It creates a very fragrant and unique smoke and flavor that are the standard for Yakitori in Japan. Bincho hardwood charcoal is made of “Ubamegashi” oak.
It is exported from Japan and can be purchased in the US (see link below).
In my own opinion, using bincho charcoal is probably as close as someone in the United States is likely to get to recreate the taste, aroma and scent of Japanese yakitori, which is grilled over bincho hardwood charcoal traditionally.
The flavor it imparts is unique and distinctive.
On that note, I am a big fan of using exotic and foreign charcoal woods for grilling the foods of other countries where ever possible and feasible.
For instance, I love to make authentic Jamaican jerk pork and chicken. The wood that gives it that distinctive “Jamaican flava” like you would taste if you purchased some jerked pork from a jerkpit or jerk restaurant in Jamaican is pimento wood. I have purchased pimento wood online, and keep a couple of burlap bags of it, as well as dried pimento tree leaves to make “real” Jamaican jerk – for that authentic jerk flava mon.
Other woods for example from Africa can be purchased for grilling African really delicious kebabs called Suya and Kyinkyinga or what is collectively called “braai” for instance.
The best wood for grilling in the African style called “Braai” that is accessible is called “Braai-Wood” and is made up of mixed bushveld wood from African wood species such as Rooikrans, Kameeldooring or Camelthorn, and Blue Gum wood. The best African grilling woods reportedly come from Namibia. African wood is available for purchase in the US from a few suppliers, but you may have to look and make sure you are getting what you pay for, and not just some bullshit.
An African Braai, is quite different for instance than the typical backyard weekend warrior barbeque dude in the US would do with a bag of charcoal briquettes and lighter fluid or a fire chimney.
The preference for braai is to use real wood as in small logs or splits and let it burn down to embers, and then cook over the wood embers. This takes a bit more time and a pretty husky grill. A cheapie aluminum grill fall apart and warp if you subject it to burning whole or split logs in it.
In Hawaii – as another example – the historically preferred hardwood charcoal or dried wood is called kiawe.
It has been used for centuries in the Hawaiian underground cook pit called the imu. It is possible to buy hardwood charcoal for Hawaiian cookouts, there is a product on the market called Ono Lump Charcoal made from 100% kiawe wood. If you didn’t want to go to the trouble or expense however, kiawe is very close in aroma and scent to mesquite which is very readily available.
Well I digressed a bit from Yakitori, but I was making a point – that the wood or charcoal one uses, really does make a difference in the flavor and aroma of the finished grilled food in a very real culinary, historical and cultural sense.
So to recap, the traditional charcoal for making Yakitori is bincho, made from the slow-burning holm or “Ubamegashi” oak in the Wakayama Prefecture near Kyoto.
You can buy bincho charcoal by clicking here.
If you find the price of imported bincho charcoal to be prohibitive, then I highly recommend clicking here to access the Lump Charcoal Database..yes, there is such a thing, believe it or not to peruse some of the reviews of the lump charcoal available on the market currently.
In my own considered opinion, it is worth it to spend the extra money on the exotic wood charcoals, because they do make a difference in flavor, and honestly you aren’t going to be making Yakitori on a daily basis probably.
The closest hardwood to bincho would be white oak hardwood charcoal.
In any case – I highly suggest that you use some form of hardwood charcoal NOT charcoal briquettes under any circumstances for making authentic Japanese Yakitori – bincho or white oak charcoal is highly preferred, but premium US domestic oak or mesquite hardwood charcoal will work.
And please…spare yourself from cooking Yakitori under an oven broiler.
Don’t even go there. It is like so missing the point. It ain’t “real” Yakitori without smoke.
Cooking the Yakitori –
Here we go, now that we have the basic tools and equipment.
Lets double check our list.
2-3 packages of organic free range chicken thighs and/or legs, skin off, meat removed from bone and cut into 1-1.25 inch pieces, rinsed and patted dry.
3-4 naganegi long onions or small thin leeks, use white parts only.
Red bell pepper cut into 1 inch pieces (optional)
Tare basting sauce
Hibachi – cast iron or clay preferred
Bincho hardwood charcoal or domestic oak lump charcoal
Bamboo skewers soaked in water for one hour.
A plate or pan to lay the skewers on to baste them.
A handheld fan – could be a cool asian fan or a simple envelope or magazine, this might sound odd, but hardwood charcoal requires more ventilation than briquets to burn completely. You will see the chefs in a yakitori-ya using a fan to bring up the heat on the coals. This is a bit of a secret that most take a while to figure out.
Lighting the hibachi. The easiest way is using paper or cardboard barely soaked in vegetable oil.
This method is very efficient, harmless, practical and easy.
Put the fire-starter in the middle of your hibachi. You than add all the pieces of charcoal in a pyramid shape all over your fire-starter which you than light up. You will be ready to barbecue in about 10 to 15 minutes. You usually know you are ready when the lump charcoal begins to turn red, a white ash appears around most of the lumps and you can leave your hand 6 inches above the fire for at least 5 seconds.
To check the temperature of the hibachi, use the palm of your hand.
Put your hand 6 inches above the burning charcoal.
Once its there, start counting the seconds and stop when it feels uncomfortable to leave it there.
The amount of time will approximate the temperature.
2 seconds – very hot, usually 375 to 400 and more
3 to 4 seconds – medium hot to hot, about 300 to 375
5 seconds – hot, between 200 to 300
Threading the bamboo skewers can be done well ahead of time.
Take the chicken pieces and thread them on the soaked bamboo skewers, alternating with the pieces of naganegi or leek and red bell pepper if using.
When the hibachi is ready, put the skewers on the it.
Cook for 4-5 minutes over a medium hot to hot fire, turning all of the skewers several times.
Remove the yakitori skewers from the fire to the pan, and use the brush to baste them liberally with tare.
Return to the hibachi, and cook for another 2 minutes, turning all of the skewers several times.
Remove the chicken to the basting pan, and swab them down again with tare.
Return to the hibachi and cook for 2 minutes turning all of the skewers several times. Remove the Yakitori from the hibachi, baste again and then serve it.
If you are new to making Yakitori, you may want to cut into one of the cubes with a knife to make sure it is thorougly cooked and is not pink. It is highly recommended to cut the chicken into as uniform of size as possible.
In Japan, rather than basting with a brush, in a yakitori-ya they will have a tare pot, that is deep enough to dunk the skewers into quickly and put them back on the fire.
I suggest serving the Yakitori with the following items to choose from.
Beer – Some say Kirin, I happen to like Sapporo in the bottle.
Wine – A nice light white chablis is good, or whatever you like.
Shichimi Togarashi – this comes in a little sprinkler bottle, it is red pepper and other spices.
While the hibachi is still hot make some Yaki Onigiri or Grilled Rice Balls (recipe follows)
Bean Sprout Salad (make ahead of time)
Cucumber Sunomono (make ahead of time)
Sesame Spinach (make ahead of time)
Instead of chazuke, I would offer first, a warm wet washcloth to each diner, and then a small bowl of miso soup or a clear soup such as sumashijiru or suimono.
Yaki onigiri are grilled rice balls. This is the most popular kind of yaki onigiri brushed with soy sauce.
4 cups steamed short grain white rice
3-4 Tbsp soy sauce
Put about a half cup of steamed short grain white rice in a rice bowl. Wet your hands in water so that the rice won’t stick. Place the rice on your hands. Form the rice into a round or a triangle, by pressing lightly but firmly with your both palms. Repeat the process to make rice balls. Lightly oil hibachi grill. Place rice balls gently on hibachi and cook until lightly browned on both sides. Brush soy sauce on rice balls little by little and turn them over. Brush soy sauce on the other sides as well. Cook until soy sauce begins to change color.
Turn over and cook the other sides. If you are worried about rice balls falling apart on grill make them in a frying pan or toaster oven.