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Heaven on a Stick: Yakitori

November 27, 2017

Japanese cuisine is about freshness and simplicity, rather than complex seasoning. The best materials meet the most precise technique. Chefs don’t mess with good meat or fish. Yakitori, or grilled chicken, perfectly embodies this thinking. Essentially, yakitori is nothing but the unadorned ingredient, perhaps with a little sauce, skewered and cooked along with other morsels, preferably over charcoal.

There’s more to yakitori than one might think. The choice of bird, cooking temperature, the cut of the meat and, most importantly, the skill of the person at the grill, all affect the quality of a meal. Chefs use their eyes, ears and noses to develop a sixth sense for when to turn a skewer, to cook it through – but not too much – or when to stir up the embers by beating their heavy paper fans. The steady whumping sound of this essential tool provides a reassuring rhythm at any “yakitori-ya” (restaurant), as it breathes life into the glowing coals.

Yakitori is hard work. Cooks prep from the morning, slicing and threading meat onto skewers. They are constantly on their feet, performing in front of customers, from the time the norenshop curtain goes up outside to advertise opening, to when they extinguish the embers at the end of the night. The intensive labor and constant activity required by the cook suits yakitori’s roots as a rough-and-ready working person’s food, served at venues like the noisy, open-fronted bars you find near large railway stations.

Tired office employees and trades-people on their way home gather at the charcoal or gas grills, quaffing beer or other cheap alcohol, as the master turns skewer after skewer amid clouds of smoke and shouted-out orders. This comfort food is cheap – even less than a dollar a skewer. Such places typically also serve pork, called yakiton, and offal and, like most yakitori-ya, vegetables such as onion, asparagus, mushrooms or eggplant. Cherry tomatoes may be wrapped in bacon.

The etiquette is similar at all yakitori-ya (except for set-courses). Simply ask for the sort of skewers you want. There’s no need to order a whole lineup at once – by ordering slowly, the skewers stay warm. Sprinkle them with some shichimi seven spice, or sansho, Japanese pepper if you like. Casual restaurants will generally cook individual sticks, but some may advertise prices for one stick, while the minimum order is two. You place empty skewers in a jar on the counter.

Recent decades have seen a shift in yakitori. At the higher end of the market is luxury dining at prices nudging a hundred dollars a head. Some restaurants pair grilled chicken with fine wines, while others import famous birds such as French Bresse chicken. Native free-range chicken features on many menus as well.

A Michelin-starred restaurant in a backstreet of Kinshicho, eastern Tokyo, offers Akadori, literally “red bird”, from Kagoshima on the southern island of Kyushu. Owner-chef Yasuhito Sakai chose it after a tasting he held with legendary sumo wrestler Chiyonofuji. The restaurant is situated close to many sumo stables, and the artisan and hard-work aspects of yakitori make it a good fit for the culture of wrestling. And if there’s anything wrestlers know about, apart from wrestling, it’s food. Sakai says, “Chiyonofuji is a gourmet who has eaten all over the country. I already liked the firm texture of Akadori, so when he recommended it I went for it straight away.”

Sakai says the most challenging part of cooking yakitori is maintaining the temperature of his charcoal. He cooks at a high heat of around 1200 degrees Celsius. The meat is partly cooked from within by infrared rays. “If you cook at lower temperatures the meat gets dominated by a charcoal aroma,” he says. “I understand people like this. But higher temperatures let the chicken retain more of its natural flavor.”

The restaurant has 12 counter seats and a small private room, and Sakai runs a single grill. His movements behind the counter are quick, even birdlike, as he turns out a constant stream of skewers for the set-course menus which are all he offers earlier in the evening, switching to a la carte later at night.  

Many restaurants offer set-course dinners of around a dozen assorted skewers. Allow some time if you book such a meal, as it will unwind over a couple of hours. A typical yakitori-ya menu may include the following:

Liver: usually served with sweet brown sauce called tare (pronounced “ta-reh”) that is a mixture of soy sauce, mirin and other ingredients
Sasami (breast): often cooked rare, and sometimes served with grated wasabi
Negima: thigh meat interspersed with sliced leek

Sunagimo (gizzard): usually served with a liberal sprinkling of salt (a little like liver, but with a crunchy texture)
Teba: wing

Tsukune: minced chicken meatballs
Uzura tamago: quail eggs
Ginnan: gingko nuts
Kawa: chicken skin, rich with fat
Momo: thigh meat
Bonjiri: tail, rich and fatty
Pickles and other side dishes
Clear chicken consommé

You may also find game birds when in season, such as duck, pheasant or even sparrow. Squeamish diners will avoid these, though aficionados look forward to crunching on the skulls! Other favorites include the earthy and fragrant matsutake pine mushrooms, nankotsu cartilage, and ume-sasami, a combination of chicken breast and umeboshi, salted plum. The taste is sour and salty and contrasts with the naturally sweet chicken.

Yakitori offers a style of dining for everyone. You will never go wrong with the course menu at a top restaurant, with the best ingredients cooked over fine charcoal. But many would say the relaxed atmosphere and cheap prices of the smoky standing bar, where you make up your meal as you go along, call out your orders and wash it all down with plenty of drinks, is one of the most authentic Japanese food experiences.

Text and Photos: Mark Robinson

1-8-13 Kinshi, Sumida-ku, Tokyo