Yakitori: The Soul of Japanese Street Food

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Yakitori, skewered and grilled chicken, is one of the most beloved street foods in Japan. Its origins stretch back centuries, and it captures the essence of casual outdoor dining in Japan. This quick and delicious dish has become popular worldwide. Let’s explore the history, preparation, and variations of yakitori.

History and Culture

Yakitori has its roots in the 17th century, when chicken vendors would grill skewers of chicken over charcoal as a tasty, portable snack. The name “yakitori” combines the Japanese words for “grill” (yaki) and “bird” (tori).

In the postwar era, yakitori stalls and restaurants proliferated, becoming fixtures of nightlife and bar culture. The aromas of sizzling chicken would fill the air as patrons gathered for food, drinks and camaraderie. Yakitori became integral to the Japanese tradition of after-work socializing.

Ingredients and Preparation

The main ingredients in yakitori are simply chicken and salt. Additional flavors are added through tare sauce, which often contains soy sauce, mirin, sake and sugar.

Many parts of the chicken are used, including thigh, breast, skin, cartilage and organs. The chicken is cut into bite-sized pieces, threaded onto bamboo skewers, seasoned with salt or tare, and grilled over bincho-tan charcoal. This imparts a wonderful smoky flavor.

The grill chef is called a yakitorishi, and it takes years of apprenticeship to master the techniques. The skewers must be placed at just the right height and angle to the heat source. Turning them at the perfect moment takes refined skill.

Regional Styles and Popular Variations

Yakitori comes in many delicious regional styles. In Kanto, the chicken is seasoned with just salt to highlight the natural flavors. Kansai-style uses a sweet tare sauce. Miso yakitori marinates the meat in a miso-based mixture.

Some popular yakitori variations include:

  • Negima – chicken thigh with scallions
  • Tsukune – chicken meatballs
  • Yotsumi – chicken thigh with spring onion
  • Tebasaki – chicken wings or legs
  • Bonjiri – chicken tail
  • Reba – chicken liver
  • Shiro – chicken gizzards

The combinations of chicken cuts and seasonings are endless. Part of the joy of yakitori is discovering new tastes and textures.

Yakitori as Street Food and Izakaya Fare

Yakitori is the quintessential food for street stalls, food carts, and izakayas (Japanese gastropubs). Customers can grab skewers right off the grill, standing or sitting at the counter. The casual, convivial atmosphere and affordable prices make it a favorite social food.

Major yakitori chains like Torikizoku offer inexpensive yakitori and drinks in an informal pub setting. Under the train tracks in cities like Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto, you’ll find yatai stands slinging hot, juicy yakitori into the night.

Global Popularity

As a versatile and easy to make dish, yakitori has caught on across the globe. Yakitori restaurants can be found in many major cities worldwide. Home cooks can easily replicate it using skewers and a grill pan or outdoor grill.

The endless possibilities of flavors and styles make yakitori an exciting culinary experience. This iconic Japanese street food will continue enticing palates everywhere.

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