The grilled chicken skewers known as yakitori are good at any time of the year, but they go especially well with ice-cold beer. They also have an excellent chance of becoming the next big Japanese culinary hit worldwide — after sushi and ramen.
Like a lot of so-called traditional Japanese dishes, the history of yakitori does not stretch back very far. This was partly due to various restrictions and edicts against the consumption of meat, especially during the Edo Period (1603-1868), which were implemented mainly for religious reasons based on Buddhist beliefs. Even though chicken was not entirely banned — unlike beef and pork — the smell of grilling meat was considered distasteful. In addition, the most commonly available chicken meat was from shamo, well-muscled roosters that had been used in cockfights. The most common way to eat this type of chicken in the 18th and 19th centuries was to stew it until tender in nabe (hotpots). Heizo Hasegawa, the real-life head of a special police unit in Edo (present-day Tokyo) — who’s also the hero of a popular book series by Shotaro Ikenami as well as several TV series — is often depicted enjoying shamo-nabe at Gotetsu, his favorite eatery in the city.
Hasegawa wasn’t able to eat it at home as cooking meat was considered to be in poor taste for someone of the samurai class.
Yakitori, as we know it today, started to appear in during the middle of the Meiji Era (1868 to 1912) — a time when chicken were bred in larger numbers for food. In urban areas across Japan, yatai (street stalls) began serving skewered chicken grilled over charcoal. It was thought that the smoky flavor from the charcoal — as well as the salty-sweet sauce brushed on after cooking — would offset the odoriferous nature of the burning meat.
In addition to chicken meat, which was still very expensive at the time, pork and beef offal were also served, as well as “mountain whale” (slang at the time for boar meat).
Yakitori only became truly mainstream in the late 1950s, when fast-growing broiler chickens were introduced from the United States and started to be raised on an industrial scale in Japan.
Yakitori-ya (grilled chicken skewer shops) became ubiquitous fixtures near train stations and other places where tired salarymen could stop after work for a drink and a quick snack. These days yakitori is as popular as ever, sold at cheap and cheerful chain restaurants and gourmet yakitori-ya that use expensive jidori (brand-name chickens bred to have more flavor then regular chickens).
You can also get all kinds of chicken parts on your skewers: thigh meat, neck meat, skin, the kidneys or hearts, cartilage and even tails.
If you’ll be enjoying the last days of summer by having a barbecue, yakitori is quite easy to cook on a charcoal grill, and even easier on a gas-fired one. Just be sure to do it over medium-hot coals, or if you have very hot coals raise the skewers over the main grill with bricks as described in the recipe. If you’re making these in the kitchen, use the fish grill if your oven has one, a hotplate or even a nonstick frying pan.
Yakitori is delicious without the sauce, too — just grill with a little salt on top and serve with a squeeze of lemon.
Recipe: Chicken and leek negima yakitori
450 grams of boneless chicken thighs with skin left on
White sections of 3 to 4 negi (Japanese leeks)
Sansho pepper (optional)
- 50 ml dark soy sauce
- 50 ml mirin rice wine
- 25 ml sake
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 tablespoon honey
- 1 teaspoon vinegar
Combine the sauce ingredients in a frying pan. Heat while stirring over medium heat until the sugar has dissolved. Keep cooking while stirring occasionally until the liquid becomes syrupy.
Cut the chicken thighs into 2 to 2½-cm cubes. Wash, peel and cut the white parks of the leeks into 2-cm-long pieces.
Put the chicken on the skewers from the meat side (not the skin side). Alternate with pieces of leek, pushing together tightly. Lightly salt each skewer.
If using a barbecue, cook the chicken over medium-hot coals (or, if the coals are too hot, place some bricks on top of the main grill on the hottest part, and put a small grill on top of the bricks). Brush the grill lightly with oil to prevent any sticking, and place three to four skewers on it, turning occasionally until they’re slightly charred. Wrap the cooked skewers in foil while you cook the rest; they’ll continue cooking through in residual heat. When all the skewers are grilled, brush the sauce over them and place back on the grill briefly. Sprinkle with sansho pepper or shichimi togarashi (seven-flavor chili pepper) and serve immediately.