Yakitori: A Bite of Japan's Well-Loved Skewers

A History of the Well-Loved Yakitori

Over the past years, the whole world has been in awe with the unique aura embodied by the Japanese culture. Girls all over the world are inspired by the combination of colorful hues, quirky prints and schoolgirl aesthetic that is fondly called kawaii fashion. Cosplaying is also another trend that stems from the Japanese culture. Coming from the words "costume" plus "playing", it basically means wearing a costume inspired by a show, movie, comic or any other medium. Cosplaying rose to fame when Japanese anime (cartoon shows) gained popularity from foreign audiences. People who do not even understand the native Japanese language have started listening to J-Pop (Japanese pop). Basically, there are a lot of unique aspects of the Japanese culture that the rest of the world embraced. One of the most popular influences on Japan derived from their culture is the worldwide affinity towards Japanese food. Gone were the days when good sushi can only be eaten in Japan. At present, restaurants all over the world have been serving authentic Japanese sushi. Eating raw fish slices used to be taboo, weird and a little gross, but with the popularity of Japanese food, sashimi is now being eaten all over the world. Thanks to Japan, the rest of the world is now enjoying the traditional food that used to be native from their land. This article will look into another one of the popular Japanese food all over the world: yakitori.

First thing’s first: what exactly is Yakitori? To put it simply, yakitori is an Asian form of barbecue. Similar to a barbecue, yakitori is meat held together by a skewer and cooked through grilling. A direct translation of the term yakitori means “grilled bird”, due to the fact that most the common type of meat used in yakitori is chicken meat, but presently other forms of meat can also be used such as pork and beef - additionally in some places in Japan, vegetables and seafood are also used as yakitori.

This delightful cuisine has been around for at least four hundred years already. In fact, the first record of yakitori can be traced back to 1600s where a book described grilled bird meat in a skewer. This leads to a conclusion that yakitori would most likely have originated during the Edo period. The term "grilled bird" for yakitori literally means bird and not chicken. In the olden days, pheasants, quails, and pigeons were used to cook yakitori. The reason for such can be attributed to Buddhism, which was the dominant religion in Japan during the 1600s. Traditional Buddhism prohibits eating of any form of meat coming from chicken, cows, and pigs that have been killed for food (due to their non-violence principle that extended to all living creatures). It was only until western influence arrived in Japan, and eating meat (especially chicken meat) finally became a norm in Japan. Common yakitori recipes then evolved and became a combination of chicken meat and offals. Offals were added as a cost-saving practice. It was only after World War II when Japan started massive breeding livestock, driving prices of chicken to go down. The improvement of Japanese post-war economy allowed prices of goods paved the way to cheaper commodities, and the rising popularity of yakitori drove caused yakitori to transition from a delicacy into a popular street food. From then on, this beloved dish can easily be found on the sidewalks vendors allowing easy access for both locals and travelers.

Cook It Yourself: Easy Restaurant Style Yakitori and Sauce Recipe

Anyone who wants to cook yakitori at home is in for a treat. It is quite easy to cook good yakitori, requiring very little effort. There are the types of yakitori, the “shio” version is simple salt based yakitori while “tare” comes with a sauce that is similar in taste profile to the sweet teriyaki sauce. Preparation of the “shio” or salty variation is the easiest as it is simply requires sprinkling the skewers with salt prior to cooking. The “tare” variant is slightly more complex, requiring soy sauce, sugar, sake, and mirin to make the base sauce. The key to creating a good "tare" is to get the right proportions to achieve the right sweet taste that is not too empowering. Online recipes offer suggested proportions, but it is still advisable to adjust proportions since taste profiles vary. Once the ingredients have been mixed together, the sauce requires boiling to get a thicker consistency. Be wary that the sauce does not take long to cook; it would only take approximately ten minutes to cook before the sauce gets thick.  Burnt sugar is not a good taste so this must be avoided at all costs. Once the sauce is done, set it aside and begin chopping the chicken into small pieces. Yakitori is known for bite-sized portions that allow the meat to be cooked properly. Vegetables, such as onions, may be added to the skewer in alternating order with the meat. It is now time to cook the meat.

There are several ways to cook yakitori. The best way to cook yakitori is through a charcoal grill. Glazed with oil, the skewer with meat is cooked at a high temperature so it cooks quickly and the outer layer can achieve a slightly crunchy texture. Other alternatives would be to fry the yakitori in a pan using a gas or electric stove. While this is easier since not everyone owns a charcoal grill, it is not quite the same as the real yakitori since it will not have the charcoal infused grilled flavor, aroma and texture on one cooked using a charcoal grill.

With the rise of yakitori’s popularity in Japan, other iterations of the yakitori were conceived in various areas of Japan. There are approximately twenty types of yakitori in Japan. Some of the popular variants are “gyutan”, which is made from beef tongue. This is definitely for those with more adventurous taste buds. The “shiro” is a type of yakitori made from chicken intestines, resembling closely the local “isaw” of the Philippines. For health conscious eaters, the “toriniku” is a variant made of purely white chicken meat. A gourmet type of yakitori is the “piman”, which are green peppers filled with cheese and wrapped with thin meat.

Enjoying Yakitori for the Health Conscious

Similar to the barbecue, the yakitori itself can't be considered healthy, as it is still meat after all – containing cholesterol and fat. However, since chicken is the most common type of yakitori meat, there are healthier routes to take for those who are on the health-conscious side. One option would be to choose yakitori made from white chicken meat or chicken breast. While it may not be ideal, as white chicken meat is less moist and juicy than dark meat, the benefit lies on the lower fat and calorie count and higher protein intake. Another area to be wary about when eating yakitori is the sodium content - since it is cooked with salt, the amount used can easily drive up the sodium content. For those who are health buffs but still want to enjoy yakitori, the best way would be to choose a part with less calorie content (an example as mentioned above is the chicken breast, this is called the “toriniku” variant), while others who refuse to eat meat but still want to enjoy the grilled taste can opt for vegetarian-friendly variants like “ginnan” and “shiitake. The former is a skewer made from gingko biloba seeds, while the latter is a skewer made from delicious shiitake mushrooms. Some restaurants also offer a combination of chicken meat and vegetables such as scallions can be chosen instead. The best way to enjoy yakitori for the health conscious would be to prepare it at home as the ratio of ingredients can be controlled, the source of meat can be assured safe, and the type of meat to be cooked can be customized with possible tweaks such as adding mushrooms, pepper, and other healthier accompaniments to the delicious yakitori.

Ways to Enjoy Yakitori: Drink Pairings

In the recent years, yakitori became a popular snack for those who want to eat whilst drinking. Since the skewers come in small portions, it is very convenient to just get a skewer and bite the small portions while drinking, and socializing with friends or colleagues. Japan has their own version of gastropubs; these are basically a place for drinking which also offers rice meals and other dishes to complement the alcohol. Japanese gastropubs are called “izakayas”. These are basically bars that offer both food and alcohol – perfect for those who want to enjoy a fulfilling meal paired with alcohol; Yakitori is a popular mainstay on izakaya menus. A popular pairing for the Japanese is anything plus sake. The taste profile of sake allows it to complement most of the traditional Japanese dishes such as sushi, sashimi, and the popular yakitori. Since the "tare" sauce is already sake based, it comes to no surprise that it perfectly complements the traditional sake. For a more modern take, a good pairing for yakitori is red wine. In the western countries, yakitori is considered to be synonymous to barbecued chicken, and grilled food is best with red wines. Others even elevate the wine and yakitori pairing to a whole new level by cooking the yakitori in wine ( a popular option for this is Merlot). For those who want to eat yakitori during a social night out drinking with friends, it is also quite good to pair with beer. Since beer contains a relatively close taste profile from sake due to similarities in the process of fermenting, it is a forgiving pair to complement yakitori.

Traveling to Japan: Where to Eat Yakitori

While in Japan, it is almost impossible not to find a yakitori-ya. These are small eatery style businesses that focus solely on selling yakitori, where one could enjoy a single yakitori or two. Travelers enjoy yakitori since it is cheap, does not cost a lot of yen and yet is still good, allowing tourists to spend their cash on other things like shopping and paying for other expenses.

Yakitori Alley in Shinjuku, Tokyo and Roppongi Nightlife

Shinjuku is a popular destination for tourists since there are plenty of things to do in the area. Located in the busy Tokyo prefecture, Shinjuku has a lot of things to offer. One can opt to shop in the local Japanese brands, emerge in the busy night market life, and of course, eat. Moving around Tokyo is also easy since the bullet train allows tourists to commute from their respective hotels to other points of the prefecture. To reach Shinjuku, one can easily ride a train going to Shinjuku station. Yakitori Alley in Shinjuku is also popularly called Piss Alley, located in the perimeter of Shinjuku’s train station, is a heaven for foodies who want to emerge in authentic Japanese food such as ramen, soba, sushi, and other traditional Japanese food. There are also plenty of yakitori-ya’s in the alley serving yakitori with drinks.

For those who want to indulge in Japan's nightlife, Roppongi is another city in Tokyo prefecture that can be visited. The racy nightlife is intriguing for foreigners, which is one of the primary reasons why foreigners crowd the area. There are a lot of bars serving drinks, and unlike izakayas, they are not for laid back drinking. Bars in Roppongi are meant for hardcore partying, even Japanese celebrities can be found in this area partying with their crew. The area does not fall short on food options as well. There are plenty of restaurants offering good yakitori. One of the most prominent restaurants is Yakitori Hachibei restaurant. Not far from one of Tokyo's many malls, the location offers good ambiance, albeit slightly more upscale than a normal yakitori-ya or izakaya. The choices are scrumptious and definitely a must-try experience while in Japan.

Other Yakitori Destinations: Kyoto, Osaka

Kyoto Prefecture is another popular tourist spot in Japan, filled with lots of culture coming from the olden days of Imperial Japan. Some of the popular restaurants in the prefecture are Topito: a small gastropub serving yakitori and drinks at affordable prices. Another affordable option is Bajitofu, which serves one dollar skewers that definitely bang for your buck. It is also very accessible since it is just walking distance from Hankyu Karasuma Station.

Osaka city is considered to be the food capital of Japan. The options available for both locals and tourists can be quite overwhelming but in a good way. The choices vary from sushi, yakiniku, ramen to the well-loved yakitori. A unique trait of izakayas scattered in Osaka is the wide array of choices. Each izakaya in Osaka offers a unique take on yakitori, which just goes to show how passionate the locals of Osaka when it comes to food.

How do I find the Best Yakitori Near Me?

Readers of this article who are not fortunate enough to be traveling to Japan in the near future need not fret. With the rise of the Internet, it is almost impossible not to find good yakitori. The Internet is a gold mine of information. The nearest yakitori place is just one click away – it is only a matter of searching, reading the reviews, checking an online photo or two, and one can easily be on his way to the nearest highly rated yakitori restaurant. As a last resort, those who cannot find any local yakitori restaurants in proximity can just opt to cook yakitori, as it can be an entirely memorable experience altogether.