Yakitori, literally “grilled bird,” is a dish of grilled chicken, and is serious business in Japan. Like other culinary specialties in Japan (think sushi, tempura, ramen), there are many restaurants that only serve yakitori. These yakitori joints are hyper-specialized, serving up every part of the chicken, but always grilled, typically skewered, and only seasoned in one of two ways: salt and pepper, or with a lacquer-like tare glaze. And usually served alongside a few cold beers.
Around the world, every culture seems to have its preferred small plates to accompany a night of drinking. Spain has tapas, satay is popular in Southeast Asia, in the US we like buffalo wings, and Yakitori is that food for Japan. Nothing sends the beer down better than a few bites of salty, greasy meat.
As mentioned above, at a typical yakitori restaurant, you would be able to enjoy skewers of really every part of the chicken. You can order the typical bits, like thighs, but also on offer are many more exciting skewers filled with things like hearts, liver, skin, or cartilage. I’ve eaten most parts of a chicken in my life, but I can’t say that I have ever eaten a dish specifically highlighting chicken cartilage–maybe it’s time for a quick Tokyo trip.
The simplicity of the food makes it easy to cook and difficult to master. As a dilettante of the highest order, I love food like that. I know that I will never run my own yakitori joint, as I personally find that kind of hyper-specialization to be a bit dull, but I can whip up a pretty mean meal of skewered chicken thighs glazed with soy and mirin. And so can you.
The recipe below is for a traditional momo yakitori, which is made with just boneless, skinless chicken thighs glazed with a tare sauce. If you want to spice things up, negima is a common variation, where scallions or pieces of leek are put between the chunks of chicken thigh. And, if you’re feeling a bit more adventurous, you can try removing the skin yourself, skewering it up, and making torikawa, skewers of just grilled chicken skin.
1.5 lbs. boneless, skinless chicken thighs
½ cup soy sauce
½ cup mirin
¼ cup sake
¼ cup water
1 tbsp brown sugar
1 tbsp minced garlic
1 tbsp minced ginger
Combine all ingredients except chicken in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes to reduce sauce. Once nicely reduced, allow to cool and reserve ¼ cup for the final baste.
Slice chicken thighs into 1” cubes and marinate for 30 minutes in the larger portion of the sauce. Soak the bamboo skewers in water during this time.
Fill the skewers with chicken pieces and cook on a medium-high heat grill or grill pan until cooked through, ~3 minutes on each side. Baste with the marinade while cooking.
When each skewer is cooked through, remove it to a plate to rest. Before serving, baste each skewer with the reserved sauce and sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds and finely chopped scallion greens.
(probably with a cold lager)