What Is Yakitori? A Beginner's Guide to This Japanese Comfort Food
This traditional, casual Japanese meal is making a splash in the United States. Here's what you need to know about how to order yakitori and make it at home.
Yakitori can be literally translated to "grilled chicken," from the Japanese words yaki (grill) and tori (chicken). Yakitori consists of bite-sized pieces of meat (usually chicken) served on a bamboo skewer.
In Japan, yakitori can be a street food dish or a casual meal served in a parlor, frequently paired with Japanese beer or sake. In America, it's becoming trendy in restaurants, with chefs using all parts of the chicken for their skewers and getting creative with other proteins and foods. It's likewise popping up in homes, especially at dinner parties, where the communal experience of cooking dinner over a hot grill offers a unique adventure and non-typical technique for putting dinner on the table.
Keep reading to learn what yakitori is, how it's prepared, and how you can make it the centerpiece of your next dinner party or family meal.
How Is Yakitori Prepared?
A small rectangular grill only a few inches deep is central to yakitori. In restaurants, chefs often prepare dishes table side or at a central grill surrounded by bar seats.
Traditional yakitori will always be prepared over binchotan, a Japanese white charcoal. This heat source burns very clean so it doesn't add flavor to the chicken skewers; all charred flavor comes from contact with the hot grill. When binchotan isn't available, lump charcoal or briquette can be used for a similar flavorless option.
The grill burns low, around 200 degrees Fahrenheit, so the meat cooks slowly. A chef will constantly stand at the grill rotating the meat and allowing it to be just kissed by the flames below. It is also up to this ever-present chef to monitor the moisture level of the meat and adjust it with a house sauce called tare.
Other than high-quality ingredients, the flavor of yakitori comes from this soy-based basting tare sauce. Each restaurant will have their own special recipe for tare, which creates a house flavor for yakitori. Ingredients in tare include Japanese rice wine (miren), scallions, ginger, sugar, soy sauce, sake, and spices.
Part way through grilling, skewers will be dunked in the tare and returned to the grill. They will be dunked again or brushed with tare right before they are served to customers. This final dip creates a lacquer like surface on the chicken that is sweet and salty but still subtle enough to let the savory chicken flavor shine through.
How to Order at a Yakitori Restaurant
When visiting a true yakitori parlor, expect to sit at a bar seat situated around a central grill. If there are tables, they will be very close to the bar so skewers can be brought to diners quickly.
Diners order from a menu featuring dozens of chicken cuts. It's not just white meat or dark meat here, choices include chicken heart, cartilage, thigh, skin, and even bits of pure chicken fat. There is also usually tsukune, a skewered meatball made of minced chicken mixed with tare and other ingredients like shiso or chopped onion. A limited number of other meats (like pork belly and beef) and vegetable options may also be on the menu.
After ordering, customers are brought one sizzling skewer at a time. They should be given a brief moment to cool and then be eaten immediately. Condiments including extra tare, chile-based powdered spice mix, or seasoned salt will be provided at some more formal yakitori parlors. A server will supply a cup for used bamboo skewers.
How Did Yakitori Get So Popular?
Yakitori's popularity in the United States can be partially attributed to food personalities like Anthony Bourdain and David Chang. Both men featured yakitori meals on their television shows "No Reservations" and "Ugly Delicious" respectively. Bourdain also described a yakitori meal in detail, down to the drips of chicken fat, in his book Medium Raw.
World-famous Japanese chefs like Yoshiteru Ikegawa are opening restaurants in the United States which attracts the interest of high-end diners to this traditional Japanese meal. While popular Japanese yakitori chains like Toritetsu and Tori Jiro have made plans to build restaurants with more affordable prices in the U.S.
The small footprint of a yakitori kitchen and solid margins on ingredients also makes yakitori attractive to chefs and restaurateurs looking to capitalize on food trends.
How to Throw a Yakitori Dinner Party
If you don't yet have a yakitori parlor in your hometown, you can still marvel at the fun experience that is this casual but classic food technique. For your next dinner party or just an experiential night of cooking at home, make it a yakitori dinner party. Here's how to do it.
What You'll Need:
- Yakitori grill or cast-iron grill pan
- Chimney starter
- Clean-burning charcoal logs
- Bamboo skewers
- Cuts of chicken, beef, pork, and vegetables
For your first yakitori experience, pick two or three yakitori recipes so you can keep preparation and cooking well managed. Classics like Yakitori Chicken, Tsukune (Japanese Chicken Meatballs), and Beef Yakitori are a good place to start your planning. Kawa Yakitori (crispy chicken skin) is a fun option, too. Make a few skewers of vegetables, too, to round out your meal.
Many yakitori recipes call for some period of marinating, so plan ahead to make sure you've given all the proteins enough time to soak in their sauces. Make the dipping sauces, such as tare, early, too.
When it's time to cook the yakitori, heat up your grill. A classic charcoal grill will work, as will a stovetop grill pan. If you're wanting a more authentic experience, you can buy an inexpensive yakitori grill ($30; amazon.com) and charcoals. Prepare the charcoals. Then preheat the grill.
Gather your family and friends, because once the yakitori starts cooking, everything moves quickly. Each skewer likely needs just a few minutes on the hot grill to cook — you're working with petite cuts of meat — and you'll want to cook in batches so the yakitori stays hot and tender. Let diners grill their own skewers, or play chef and cook round after round of skewers, doling them out as they're done.
If you want the yakitori experience to be a bit closer to what you'd experience in a Japanese parlor, make sure there's plenty of beer or sake.