Yakitori is now grilling.

The Allure of Yakitori

The Allure of Yakitori | やきとりの魅力
From February 2024 issue



Whenever I pass near Shibuya Station, the aroma of Yakitori fills the air, tickling my senses and making me think, “Oh, I want to eat that,” as I hurry back home. The sound of Yakitori sizzling on the grill, the tantalizing scent of the sauce caramelizing, the smoke – it’s irresistible to anyone who loves Yakitori. 


Near the shop window, there’s a grill where shokunin diligently work; not a hint of a smile, but they are entirely focused as they grill, even breaking into a sweat. You can see their dedication from the outside. Inside, salarymen sit at the counter or tables, beer in hand, savoring Yakitori skewers after a long day at work. It’s easy to be drawn in, step inside, and place an order without a second thought.


Yakitori is now grilling.

For the Japanese, Yakitori is an extremely familiar dish. It’s a simple cuisine where chicken pieces are skewered, dipped in sauce, sprinkled with salt, and then grilled. It’s a dish we adore. You can buy ready-made Yakitori at supermarkets, convenience stores, and department store basements or enjoy them in restaurants. They appear on izakaya menus so frequently that it’s almost a given. 


Even among Yakitori restaurants, the styles vary. Some resemble neighborhood hangouts under the smoky awning under train tracks, while others are elegant venues with soft lighting and jazz playing in the background, perfect for a romantic date night. Michelin-starred Yakitori restaurants, where important guests are entertained, are so popular that securing a reservation can be challenging.


The shop is selling Yakitori

In Yakitori restaurants today, while grilling chicken is the orthodox method, some also refer to skewers of beef or pork organs as “Yakitori.” In the Showa era (1926-1989), birds like sparrows and quails were also grilled and called “Yakitori.” 


So, what can you eat at Yakitori restaurants today? For those who prefer something light, we recommend “Sasami,” which is chicken breast meat. Grill it lightly so that the inside remains rare, and enjoy it with wasabi. Sasami has low-fat content, high protein, and a soft, fluffy texture. The classic choice is undoubtedly “Momo” or chicken thigh. It’s a substantial portion from the leg to the base of the thigh.


The heart is called “Hatsu” and boasts an elegant flavor and a plump texture. The liver, known as “Reba,” is wonderfully smooth and a treasure trove of iron. Savor its rich flavor. “Snagimo,” a calcium-rich muscular part found on the outer surface of the stomach, offers a satisfying, push-back texture. Some restaurants refer to patties made from minced “Momo,” breast, neck, and other meat parts as “Tsukune.” At the renowned yakitori restaurant Isehiro, these patties are crafted without any binders and are uniquely accented with hemp seeds and salt.


“Teba” (chicken wings) are typically skewered with the bone from the tip of the wing to the elbow. They grill up crispy and fragrant, and it’s enjoyable to strip the meat off the bone with your teeth. “Kawa” (chicken skin) is rich in collagen, and the fat spreads in your mouth. Utilizing every part of the chicken, from head to toe, is a perfect way to savor it for the times.


Preparing Yakitori before grilling

What matters most in Yakitori is the quality of the material – the chicken, the taste, and the skills. Selecting ingredients, careful preparation, skewering, and grilling with skill. Even though they may look the same, grilling techniques vary depending on the part. Maintaining high grill temperatures while grilling quickly, trapping the juices, and achieving a crispy finish – the Shokunin work leaves no room for error. The seasoning is either salt or Tare (sauce). Even with salt, there’s creativity, and the Tare made with soy sauce, mirin, and sugar gives each shop its unique flavor.


The appearance of chickens in Japanese literature dates back to the “Ama-no-Iwato Legend” in the “Kojiki.” Chickens were considered sacred, believed to have the power to summon the sun goddess with their crowing, and were revered as divine messengers. Thus, the term “Tori,” which means birds, was primarily used for wild birds. During the Edo period (17th-19th century), the “Yakitori-yatai” that emerged were places where chicken organs were skewered and grilled alongside those of cows and pigs. 


Yakitori in term of omiyake box

In 1871, with the lifting of the ban on meat consumption, chickens, like cows, gradually became a part of daily life. However, at that time, chicken meat was more expensive than beef. In the 1960s, broilers, which could be efficiently raised in a short period of about 50 days, became popular, and Yakitori spread rapidly.


Today, some popular places use broilers that prioritize freshness, while others use domestic brand chickens and free-range chickens. The diversification of cuts and rare varieties of chicken satisfy customers’ curiosity and desire for knowledge. High-end restaurants offer Omakase courses, meticulously planned to be eaten rhythmically, with vegetables and other items in between skewers. Also, there’s a wide variety of chicken dishes beyond skewers, which adds to the excitement.


Yakitori reflects the Japanese attention to detail and aesthetics in every aspect, embodying the philosophies of its shop owners. Since we’re here, shall we enjoy it again today?



Writer: Yumi Iwasaki

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