Chef Mike delights the tastebuds with sweet yakitori rewards.
There is something visceral and primordial that happens in the homo sapiens brain when animal flesh meets hot coals. Odor molecules find their way to our noses on an evangelical mission to beat at the door of our brain’s limbic system and trigger atavistic impulses strong enough to tempt even the daintiest flower of our species.
This complex assault on our senses is oftentimes accompanied by the corresponding disposition towards a hoppy beverage and social congress with other humans you find tolerable. In short, we humans really love grilled meat and adult beverages.
When the grilling arts are being considered, American, Australian, and Argentinean carnivores most likely come to mind. But the Japanese should take a prominent place in any discussion of grilled meats because of their meticulous devotion to grilled meat perfection in the form of yakitori.
Yakitori can literally be translated to “grilled chicken,” a translation so simple it both betrays the dish’s complexity while celebrating its modest purity. Bite sized chunks of thigh, skin, liver or any other part that at one time helped form a complete chicken are threaded onto bamboo skewers and grilled over hot coals. This may sound as impressive as a grilled cheese sandwich, but centuries of crafting Binchõ-tan charcoal from ubame oak, precisely trimming out the best cuts of chicken, and perfecting the balance of sweet and salty flavors within tare sauce have elevated yakitori to heights alongside the longissimus dorsi of a Piedmontese bull.
To make proper yakitori at home, start with chicken thighs. Thighs are indisputably juicier and more flavorful than the dubiously popular chicken breast and will produce far better yakitori. Japanese chefs separate muscle groups and trim out bits of fat and sinew from the thigh meat, but if you’re less patient, a simple 1—1 1/2” cube will be fine. Sprinkle with salt and white pepper and thread them onto skewers, alternating the chicken with segments of scallion.
Be sure to push everything together tightly. This creates less surface area which means less moisture loss and juicier yakitori.
You don’t have to make your own tare sauce, but it’s so much better tasting than store-bought that it borders on a punishable offense to brush proper yakitori skewers with a watery salt bomb like Kikkoman or Tabasco teriyaki sauce.
Tare is very similar to teriyaki sauce, but balances the sweet and savory aspects of the sauce better while imparting a glimmering sheen to your finished skewers. Cook it down until it becomes a syrupy, spoon-coating sauce and apply once when the chicken is almost done and again just before serving.
If there is a “secret” to great yakitori, it would be in the charcoal. Japan’s Kansai region is known for producing the world’s finest cooking charcoal, Kishu Binchotan or white charcoal. Binchotan charcoal burns longer and at a lower temperature than ordinary charcoal and doesn’t produce any unpleasant odors that would interfere with the flavor of the food, making it indispensable for proper yakitori.
Although it’s expensive (about $20 lb) and hard to find (Amazon’s your best bet or get the folks at Asian Food & Gifts to order you a bag). It’s worth the added money and effort.
Life’s too short to eat bad food. So go the extra mile and reap the sweet yakitori rewards.
Chicken and leek negima yakitori
- 1 lb boneless chicken thighs, skin on, cut into 1”—1½” cubes
- White sections of 3 to 4 scallions or naganegi onion cut into 3/4” pieces
- Vegetable oil
- Sansho pepper (optional)
- 2 oz dark soy sauce
- 2 oz mirin rice wine
- 1 oz sake
- 1 tbsp sugar
- 1 tbsp honey
- 1 tsp vinegar
- Combine the sauce ingredients in a pan and stir over medium heat until the sugar dissolves and the liquid becomes syrupy enough to coat a spoon.
- Thread the chicken onto the skewers from the meat side, alternating pieces of scallion, pushing everything tightly together as you go. Lightly salt each skewer.
- Cook the skewers over medium-hot coals. Brush the grill lightly with oil to prevent sticking then place your skewers over the hot portion of the grill, turning frequently until the chicken is well browned and the scallions are tender.
- When chicken is about 75 percent cooked, brush both sides of the skewer with tare sauce and continue cooking, being careful not to allow the sauce to burn. Remove chicken from grill and allow to rest for 1 to 2 minutes.
- Brush with additional glaze, sprinkle with sansho pepper or shichimi togarashi (seven-flavor chili pepper) and serve immediately.
Longtime food writer and professional chef Mike McJunkin is a native Chattanoogan currently living abroad who has trained chefs, owned and operated restaurants. Join him on Facebook at facebook.com/SushiAndBiscuits