Yakitori 焼き鳥 / やきとり, the ubiquitous meat skewers traditionally grilled over a charcoal fire (a bonus if it’s over binchotan white charcoal, the crème de la crème of charcoal!), are the drool-worthy epitome of happy hour or street food in Japan. There are many restaurants (yakitori-ya 焼き鳥屋) that specialize in it, and they are usually Japanese bars called izakaya 居酒屋 where the quintessential salary man goes to after a long day’s work for drinks and delicious grub with his fellow comrades.
But this has not decreased its street cred in the least! The yakitori street in Yurakucho有楽町 is to-die-for. An entire row of grimy hole-in-the-wall izakaya spewing wafts of smoke under a worn-out tunnel right beneath the train tracks; it’s the real deal all right!
Chicken is usually used but there are some variations with beef and pork. As every yakitori otaku knows, the cut of meat, the way it is filleted, the control of heat and charcoal, and the technique used in flipping the bamboo skewers are factors that come into play in crafting a perfect well-balanced yakitori. The glaze of melted fat, the hint of smokiness, the sweet-savory tang from the tare タレ sauce.. Absolute bliss!
I am personally partial to tare, the soy sauce, mirin, sugar and sake reduction that packs an impossible amount of flavor. The other option for yakitori is salt 塩. Common condiments include karashi からし(Japanese hot mustard), yuzukoshou 柚子胡椒 (yuzu pepper paste), freshly grated wasabi わさび (Japanese horseradish), and shichimi tougarashi 七味唐辛子 (7 spice chili powder).
Bonjiri ぼんじり – literally translated, 鶏の尻尾 niwatori no shippo means “butt tail of chicken”. This tender part comes from the tailbone of the chicken and is popular for its fatty melt-in-the-mouth sensation.
Sunagimo 砂肝 – Chicken gizzards
Heartsu/Shinzou ハツ/心臓 – Chicken heart
Reba/kimo レバ/肝 – Chicken liver
Shiro シロ – Chicken small intestines
Nankotsu 軟骨 – Chicken soft bone cartilage. Crunchy!
Sasami Ume Shiso ささみ梅しそ – chicken breast with plum jam and perilla leaf. The chicken could be prepared rare or well done, and also as a roll or fillet.
Gyutan 牛タン – Cow tongue. Pork tongue (豚タン) may also be on the menu. Chewy!
Other yummy types of yakitori and skewered dishes (串物 kushimono):
Kawa 皮 – Chicken skin grilled to a crisp!
Negima ねぎま – Chicken thigh (momo もも) and scallion
Tsukune つくね – Chicken meatball/kebab. Sometimes has nankotsu mixed in for some crunch.
Butabara 豚バラ – Pork belly. Sin on a stick.
Asparabaconアスパラ ベーコン – Asparagus wrapped in bacon. Variant fillings include mushrooms, tomatoes, mochi and cheese. Warning: Can’t stop at one!
Yaki Onigiri 焼きおにぎり – Grilled rice ball. Burnt bits of rice form a crisp crust. Drizzle with soy sauce and you get a little parcel of paradise!
There are up to 100 combinations of yakitori, such as sausage, quail eggs, gingko nuts, stuffed Japanese green peppers (shishitou ししとう) and eggplant, garlic mushrooms..
The possibilities are endless! Venture out of your comfort zone and try at least one of each of those acquired tastes; you may actually find that you like it!