Walk out of almost any train station in Japan in the evening, look for a restaurant with an akachochin (red lantern) outside, and inside you’ll find groups of salaried workers talking, drinking, and consuming countless skewers of yakitori, this country’s version of shish kebab. There is something very seductive about the smell of meat grilling over charcoal, which may help to explain the nation’s enduring love of yakitori.
The forerunner of yakitori was a variety of small birds, such as quail or sparrow, split open, flattened and grilled. True yakitori, spitted on skewers, appears to have originated in yatai – food stalls – in Tokyo during the Meiji period (1868-1912). At that time chicken was prohibitively expensive, so beef and pork intestines were primarily used. The notion of grilling food caught on during this period, as Japan opened up to Western influences, including cuisine.
As the price of chicken decreased in Japan, particularly in the Sixties when “broiler” chickens were introduced, it became the most common yakitori ingredient. These days, yakitori usually consists of chicken parts and vegetables skewered on sticks, grilled, and either sprinkled with salt or brushed with a sweetened soy-based sauce.
- 1-1/2 lbs boned chicken leg or thigh meat, cut into 1-inch pieces
- 8 washed & halved chicken livers (or chicken gizzards or rolled pieces of skin)
- 8 small chicken wings (salt grill only)
- 1 green bell pepper, seeded and cut into 1-inch pieces
- 1 or 2 large Japanese leeks (naganegi), white part only (or white onions), cut into 1-inch pieces
- 3/4 cup mirin (sweet rice sake)
- 2 tbsps rock sugar, or 1 tbsp white sugar
- 3/4 cup low-sodium soy sauce
- 1 or 2 roasted or grilled chicken bones, optional
- Ground Japanese pepper (sansho)
- Seven-spice pepper mixture (shichimitogarashi)
- Lemon wedges for salted skewers
Put the mirin and sugar in a saucepan and warm, stirring well, over medium heat until the sugar melts. Add the soy sauce and chicken bones (if used), and bring the mixture to a boil. Turn the heat down and simmer, uncovered, for about twenty minutes. The sauce should reduce about 30 percent, and be thick but still pourable. Strain it and cool to room temperature.
Since the cooking time for each ingredient varies, each should be threaded on separate skewers – 8- or 10-inch bamboo skewers or short steel shish-kebab ones – except for chicken pieces alternated with leeks, a traditional combination. Four pieces per skewer is best.
Prepare a barbecue, grill, or broiler. For best results, use charcoal. Grill the skewers, unseasoned at first, turning every few minutes until the ingredients start to brown and the juices begin to trickle out. At this point, either salt both sides of each skewer or dip it into the sauce. Grill for a few more minutes, turning occasionally, then remove the salted skewers for immediate consumption; dip the other skewers into the sauce again and grill them twice more, the second time returning them to the fire only briefly. Serve the sauced skewers with garnishes and the salted ones with lemon wedges.
Photo attribution: Copyright: npdstock / 123RF Stock Photo
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