When you are handed a piece of juicy, crispy chicken on a stick, dripping delicious tare or sprinkled with shio, no good manners are expected. While the meat is still sizzling and steamy, go ahead and remove that piece of chicken thigh with your teeth like a caveman, even if your hands get all greasy, in fact, the greasier the better. In Japan, the land where cleanliness and order is revered, having a hearty meal of yakitori can be soul repairing.
The grill with an assortment of sizzling yakitori.
One of the must-try’s of Japanese cuisine, Yakitori technically means grilled bird, but today the word encompasses a wide range of meats and vegetables skewed on a bamboo stick and charbroiled on a grill. It is a staple for late night office workers, namely the salarymen, looking to unwind and perhaps get drunk at a joint near their office, but it’s enjoyed by all Japanese as an Izakaya snack, or as the traditional food to buy from street vendors at local festivals.
When looking for a good yakitori place, the best endorsement a yakitori-ya can get is to have a lengthy line of patrons waiting to be seated. If you don’t mind the wait, and perhaps a cloud of smoke, as there are usually no non-smoking areas, look for one of these lively places, where not only the food, but also the atmosphere can make you feel at home and instantly relax you.
Depending on whether you go with a large group or just a few people, it could be fun to seat at the bar facing the grill, which admittedly can get hot and smoky, but allows for instant access to the staff when placing your orders and lets you marvel at how they insert meat on the stick at the speed of light and toss it on the grill. Start of by ordering a cold draft beer and the classic Yakitori skewer Negima, grilled chicken and scallions, or perhaps a couple of Sasami, chicken tenderloin served rare topped with a bit of wasabi. Don’t forget to order a couple of veggies too, like a stick of tender shiitake mushrooms, or one of my favorites: Asparabekon, which as you might have guessed, it’s grilled asparagus wrapped in bacon.
Most yakitori skewers can be seasoned with either tare, a thick sauce made with soy sauce, sake, Mirin and sugar, or shio, which is basically just salt, so you can choose what condiment you prefer when you order. However, some yakitori do pair better with one or the other, so make sure to check with the chef or a yakitori connoisseur.
You’ll also have to try Tsukune too, delicious meatballs of chicken minced meat, Tebasaki, the Japanese version of chicken wings, and Kawa, greasy chicken skins. Now, you may or may not be used to eating organs, but a visit to a yakitori-ya, would not be complete without some of the most popular yakitori items like Hatsu, chicken hearts, or Reba, chicken livers, and of course, Nankotsu, breast bone cartilage that I didn’t like at first, but that has grown on me for its chewy consistency.
Chicken hearts are distinguishable by their characteristic shape.
While you can order a plate from the start with an assortment of various kinds, perhaps it’s wiser to order in sets of two or three as you go, which allows you more freedom to try new ones and repeat your favorites. Feel free to rests in between sets, and order more beer or even a Highball whiskey if you want to get a bit tipsy. As you take the last sip of your drink and look down at the pile of bamboo sticks on your empty plate like discarded bones, you’ll not just be full, but you’ll also have that almost guilty satisfaction of having indulged in a hearty, delicious meal.