Humans have been putting meat over fire for a long time to create, and there’s no wonder why. It tastes delicious, fills you up and is relatively easy to do (but hard to master). Maybe that’s why Japan does it so well. That’s right—today, we’re talking about yakiniku, or Japanese barbecue, which stands out for its high-quality meat, affordability, and tasty variety.
What is it and where is it from? What do they offer at yakiniku restaurants? What’s the pinnacle of meat at one of these places? Learn all about this fun and delicious cooking style here!
What is Yakiniku?
Yakiniku generally refers to grilled meat that is served to you cut and uncooked, meaning you have to actually grill it yourself. When enjoyed at a restaurant, you order different cuts of meat and grill it at your table. However, yakiniku is something people also enjoy at beach parties, camping trips and more.
Yakiniku restaurants generally give you one of three styles of grill. The first is a grill built into a table and uses charcoal. Here, staff will replace the coals with hot ones after about an hour. The second is another built-in grill that uses gas. The third is a grill placed on the table that is either a gas or charcoal grill.
No matter which style of grill a restaurant uses, you can enjoy grilling your favorite meats and vegetables to your desired doneness. And if your grill gets too burnt, the staff will come and replace it with a new one so you can get that fresh flavor back. Most restaurants offer both ala carte and course menus, with courses being the most popular.
Ala carte is great if one knows exactly what they want, but courses provide a bit of everything that that shop or that region is famous for. For example, in Toyama’s Himi city, you can order a course that serves up a variety of the local A4 rank beef. There are even tabehodai (all-you-can-eat) courses where you can order almost anything on the menu for 90 minutes or 2 hours.
At your table, you'll have a pair of tongs or designated chopsticks that you use to place things on the grill or flip your meat. These are present so that you can keep your chopsticks away from the raw meat and the hot grill.
Because Japanese barbecue is more focused on the natural flavors of the meat, you can actually enjoy yakiniku at home without having to worry complicated marinades. In fact, that's why it's so popular for outdoor events. Just pop over to the supermarket and you can buy plenty of pre-cut (and even pre-marinated) meat for grilling.
Where did Yakiniku Come from?
If you remember from our blog about yakitori, meat was prohibited in Japan for a while, and beef wasn’t approved until 1871. Long story short, during the Meiji Restoration, Emperor Meiji wanted to introduce more meat into the Japanese diet to mimic the Western diet at the time.
In fact, yakiniku implied “Western-style barbecue”. Plus, there were two types of barbecue: steak barbecue (yakiniku) and roasted meat (iriniku). These days, we just say yakiniku to mean both. However, yakiniku then and yakiniku now is very different, with the version we know now being heavily influenced by Korean barbecue. This influence came from Korean restaurants that started opening during the mid-1940s.
According to Osaka Info, the first official yakiniku shops were Shokudoen in Osaka and Meigetsukan in Tokyo. Also, contrary to Korean barbecue, yakiniku followed the same idea of okonomiyaki and sukiyaki by having customers participate in the cooking process and flavoring it themselves.
Fun Fact: According to Tokyo Restaurant Guides, yakiniku grew in popularity thanks to the invention of yakiniku sauce for home use in the 50s and 60s. This actually started Japan's culture of cooking meat unseasoned and then dipping it into a sauce.
What’s on the Yakiniku Menu?
Beef is the main focus of most yakiniku places, excluding one specialty type. Let’s do a very quick speedrun of the different cuts.
- Rosu: Beef loin and chuck slices.
- Karubi: Also known as baraniku, karubi is short rib meat served boneless.
- Harami: A tender meat from around the diaphragm, better known as skirt.
- Tan: Beef tongue. ‘Tan’ comes from the English word 'tongue'. Goes really well with salt and lemon juice.
- Misuji: Meat from around the shoulders that is really tender.
- Sirloin: Yes, the same sirloin used for steaks.
Beef may be the main course, but because pork cooks so quickly, it’s a popular choice for those looking for something to eat right away. Plus, the fat of the pork helps to prevent leaner meats from sticking to the grill. You can find pork versions of karubi, rosu and tan as well as these two additional types.
- Butabara: Pork belly.
- P-toro or Tontoro: Fatty meat from around the cheek and the neck.
Much like yakitori, you can order plenty of chicken to cook on your grill. Just know that it cooks longer than beef does, so grilling pros designate a part of the grill for chicken. This allows you to cook and eat other items while waiting for the chicken to finish.
Yakiniku shops know how much Japan loves seafood and will always include options like squid, octopus, shrimp and other shellfish that are easy to cook on a grill.
While yakiniku is usually no place for a vegetarian, there are plenty of vegetable options for those looking to break up the meat feast a little. Vegetables can include bell peppers, carrots, mushrooms, onions, eggplant, kabocha (Japanese pumpkin) and more. Pro tip: Order a vegetable plate to get a bit of everything.
By the way, if you’re a vegetarian, more places, like Yakiniku Like!, are including veggie meat on the menu. Plus, shops already change out the grill cover between each new party, so you can cook on a clean grill.
Jingisukan literally translates to Genghis Khan, but it’s actually a type of yakiniku that uses mutton (sheep). This style is from Hokkaido but is quite popular all over Japan. The inventor of this dish, Tokuzo Komai, was inspired by the grilled mutton dishes of Northeastern China, which is where it got its name. This dish is actually pretty old now, dating back to at least 1931, its first written mention.
Horumon is quite a divisive dish, with many foreigners living in Japan not being a fan. If you look up the word ‘horumon’, you’ll probably find ‘hormone’ as the meaning, but that’s not right in this case. The word ‘horumon’ comes from the Kansai dialect and literally means ‘discarded items.’ That’s because this is the innards of the cow or pig.
The name comes from the ingenuity of Korean folks back after World War 2. During the food shortages that we mentioned in our Cup Noodle blog, Korean restaurants found ways to use the discarded items of other shops as barbecue.
In the past, horumon included things like liver, heart and tail, but those have become a bit more common in cuisine. So, nowadays, it mostly refers to intestines but can include tripe, stomach and (very occasionally) uterus. If you come from a culture that normally eats this kind of thing, you’ll feel right at home.
Yakiniku & Japanese Wagyu
Japanese Wagyu has dominated the meat scene for a while now with its amazing marbling and fat that makes it melt in your mouth when cooked. This is because the quality of Japanese wagyu, especially A5 wagyu, is absolutely amazing. That might be why Japanese wagyu is so expensive anywhere outside of Japan. However, in Japan, wagyu is much more affordable (but still expensive).
While the most famous Japanese beef is Kobe's black beef, Japan has several places that produce A5 wagyu, with the top three coming from Kansai. There's Tajima beef from Hyogo, Matsusaka beef from Mie, and Omi beef from Shiga as well.
Now, back to yakiniku. Yakiniku is a great and relatively affordable way to enjoy high-quality beef in the form of barbecue. While your average yakiniku restaurant might not have A5 wagyu, higher-quality shops and shops in areas with high rank beef will.
These shops will also have courses which are probably your best bet to get a bit of everything. The staff will bring out each dish, tell you a little about each meat, and in the case of more delicate cuts, they will cook it for you on the grill to make sure it's grilled to perfection.
Plus, after the course is over, you can order more of what you liked in the course. Just try to remember the names of what you received.
Now that you’ve learned so much about yakiniku, all that’s left is for you to come to Japan and experience all of the grilled meat and veggie meats you can. That, or you can get a bowl of yakiniku-themed noodles.
Have you ever tried Japanese barbecue? What did you like? Have you ever tried A5 wagyu barbecue? Let us know in the comments!