Japan has a knack for easily portable yet delicious street food and festival food. For those who like sweets, Japanese crepes are always a good bet. For those who don’t mind seafood, takoyaki is waiting for you. But if you just want tasty chicken on a stick, there’s yakitori.
Yakitori, a fun, delicious Japanese street food, has an interesting history and has spread from Japanese food stalls to restaurants, izakayas (Japanese pubs), convenience stores, and festivals. Read on to learn all about this unassuming yet very tasty dish.
What is Yakitori?
Yakitori is pretty easy to explain. Let’s start with the Japanese name. Yaki refers to something being grilled, which is why things like yakisoba (noodles cooked on a flat grill) and takoyaki (grilled octopus dumplings) have ‘yaki’ attached to them. Tori simply means ‘bird’, and with this dish, the bird is chicken. Put them together and what do you get? Grilled chicken!
More directly, yakitori is a dish of grilled chicken pieces on bamboo skewers, often cooked with salt or tare (a mix of soy sauce, Japanese cooking wine, and sugar). Thanks to the ‘use it all’ mentality of Japanese yakitori makers, the meat itself usually consists of various cuts, from basics like breast and thigh to more interesting cuts like hearts, cartilage, and gizzards. You can also find various veggies thrown onto the skewer, such as green onion, mushroom or green pepper.
One of the great things about yakitori is that it's very affordable. The vegetables in particular are usually the cheapest menu items. Image via Instagram (@yakitori_dentist)
In some cases, yakitori refers to bits of grilled chicken pulled off the skewer. The best example of this is the tasty and more easily filling dish of yakitori-don, a dish of grilled chicken over a bowl of rice. Also, many chicken skewer shops will sell more than just chicken, adding beef, pork, and even horse meat to their menu based on the local offerings.
Grilled Bird’s Interesting History
The origin of Japanese-style chicken skewers is really like a fun, bit of bite-sized history. To understand yakitori, we have to understand Japan’s relationship with chicken.
According to the Japan Times, Buddhism has been deeply rooted in Japan ever since the Asuka period (592-710), which led to eating meat being generally banned. However, exceptions were made for ‘pest animals’ and ‘wild birds’ like pheasant and duck, thanks to their supposed medical properties.
That being said, chicken wasn’t entirely banned either, with rooster being popular as well. Either way, whether it was wild bird or rooster, bird was mostly cooked in a stew.
After the Asuka period, the ban was relaxed, and sometime during the Edo period (1603-1867), yakitori appeared in a cookbook, the Gouruinichiyo Ryourisho (Classified Daily Cooking). Despite its invention, chicken was actually really expensive, even more than beef!
Yakitori shops aren't just great for food. They're perfect for chatting with friends and locals with some drinks and good food. Image via Unsplash
This led to yatai (street food stall) owners using the scraps from fancier restaurants that they’d throw onto the grill. This version of yakitori was usually made up of innards and throwaway pieces and was grilled and basted in tare.
Thank You, 1960s
Now, fast forward to the 60s, and we see the invention of the broiler, which made popping out chicken skewers easier and increased the street food’s popularity. The 60s also brought a higher awareness of food safety. This led to the cultivation of nationally protected chicken breeds which helped to bring the domesticated chicken population up and lower the price of chicken.
More chicken led to more shops, more yakitori, more skewer lovers, and most importantly, more focus on flavor and ingredients.
How to Eat Yakitori Like a Pro
While yakitori isn't a formal occasion, there are two tips that you should know to make sure that everything goes smoothly.
There’s not a whole lot of rules for eating yakitori. However, some people have questions, and we have answers.
One of the biggest questions for those eating these chicken skewers during their first trip to Japan is: Do you eat yakitori off the stick? Well, actually, yes! You can eat it directly off the stick with no problem at all.
Some people may pick the chicken off the skewer and eat them, but it’s kind of like eating pizza with a fork. It’s an extra step and some people may look at you a bit funny. So while it’s up to your preferences, the norm is to just dig in. However, if you’re sharing a stick between friends, it’s better to pick off your piece and give the rest of the stick to the other person.
Other than that, the only other thing to know is what to do with the bamboo skewer after you’ve eaten the meat. You shouldn’t leave them on your plate because it creates a messy tabletop and is harder to clean up. That’s why most yakitori spots have a cup on the table where you place your skewers (pointy side down) after you’re done.
What Does the Menu Look Like?
As we mentioned before, the typical yakitori shop will have a selection of cuts, and a topping or coating is applied either by your choice or by the owner’s recommendation. While salt and tare are the most common, shops can include options like mixed seasoning, wasabi, Japanese plum (ume), and more. Let’s look at some of the most common menu items, Japanese names and all.
While negima (chicken with green onion) is the one most people get attached to, restaurants and izakayas usually offer many different cuts.
A lovely piece of juicy chicken thigh usually eaten with salt or tare.
Tiny pieces of tasty chicken breast. As a blank canvas, sasami can go with salt, tare, wasabi, Japanese plum and more.
A match made in heaven, negima is a skewer of grilled chicken and grilled leek that alternates to create a delicious flavor combo.
Tebasaki & Tebamoto (手羽先・手羽元)
Chicken wings (tebasaki) and drumettes (tebamoto) cooked to perfection. If ordered with salt, it’s usually nice and crispy, while the tare version tends to be a little softer.
While we love fried chicken here in Japan, tebasaki is always a tasty option! Image via Instagram (@norisuke78)
Chicken meatballs, sometimes with bits of cartilage for crunch, that is perfectly juicy. It’s especially tasty with a cheese topping.
Chicken skin, usually taken from the neck area, making it slightly fattier. It’s loved for its outer crunch and inner chewiness.
Lighter than beef or pork liver, chicken liver is crispy on the outside but smooth inside.
Chicken hearts have a uniquely hearty texture and a light yet enjoyable taste that goes well with salt.
Unlike the fried gizzards of the American South, these gizzards get their crispiness from grilling and their flavor from simple salt.
We love fried gizzards, but sunagimo turned out to be just as good when we tried it here! Image via Instagram (@yoshimurakei)
Grilled cartilage taken from either the soft tip of the chicken breast or from between the thigh and drumstick. It’s actually pretty flavorless, but has a good crunch.
Chicken tail that is very tender and often has a tiny bit of cartilage for crunch. It can be an acquired taste thanks to the oil gland (removed before cooking of course).
Chicken crown that is cooked until crispy and has a surprising amount of both tender meat and collagen. This is a rare find these days.
Chicken neck that has high fat content, making it a little bit chewier but very flavorful. This one is also a rarer find nowadays.
The strangest on the list, chochin is the oviduct (similar to the fallopian tubes) and the hanging ovary (egg yolk) which is grilled to be smoky and crunchy and glazed with tare. The egg yolk adds creaminess to this unusual dish.
While this dish looks a bit like an eldritch horror, a lot of people like the way chochin tastes and think of it as gourmet. Image via Instagram (@tabericogram_m)
Whether it’s something you want to enjoy on-the-go or sit down and fill up on, yakitori is a great option. It may seem like a simple dish, but the varieties and cuts provide plenty of choice and flavor options just waiting for you to try!
Are there any cuts you’d like to try? Let us know in the comments below!