Where does yakitori come from?
Yakitori is a traditional dish in Japanese cuisine that originated in Tokyo during the Meiji period in the 19th century. It consists of bite-size pieces of chicken that are marinated in tare (a sweet and savoury sauce) and grilled on skewers over hot coals. The dish has its roots in street food culture and was originally sold by vendors from food stalls and carts. Over time, it has evolved into a popular menu item in izakayas, where it is still enjoyed today as a casual snack or as part of a larger meal.
Japan is traditionally a Buddhist country and until the 19th century, religious beliefs meant that consuming meat was not a part of Japanese food culture. Rules prohibited the eating of meat to promote compassion and non-violence to animals. Although chicken was not banned like other meats, the smell of grilling meat was considered uncouth. Smart street vendors began to grill skewered marinated chicken over charcoal to cover up the smell of cooking meat. After World War II, prime cuts of chicken became more widely available and yakitori developed into a staple.
Where to find the best yakitori
One of the most famous streets for Japan’s favourite fast food is Memory Lane, also known as Piss Alley, in Shinjuku. The street holds a collection of small bars and over 80 yakitori chicken restaurants and street food vendors. In the 1940s, Piss Alley provided a bustling social spot for locals who enjoyed the unique access to luxuries such as meat and alcohol in a suffering war economy.
Visitors to Piss Alley will notice many Japanese chefs in restaurant windows using what appear to be plant pots for grilling. A good ceramic pot makes the perfect vessel as the material insulates the outside while holding in and focusing heat meaning the charcoal stays hot for hours.
Yakitori restaurants are called “yakitori-ya” in Japan and are known for their casual atmosphere, inexpensive prices, and a wide range of menu items that go beyond grilled chicken. Yakitori-ya are a staple of Japanese dining culture and usually have a grill in the centre of the dining room, allowing customers to watch their food being prepared.
Yakitori restaurants typically serve a variety of yakitori dishes, including chicken thigh, breast, cartilage, skin, and other parts of the bird. In addition to yakitori, customers can typically expect to find other grilled dishes such as vegetables, seafood, and meat, as well as side dishes like rice, noodles, and salads.
Why is yakitori so popular?
Traditional chicken yakitori has held the top spot for Japanese fast food since yakitori’s popularity exploded in the 1950s. Originally, yakitori was a popular choice for exhausted workers who craved a snack at the end of a busy day, accompanied by beer and a cigarette. Today, yakitori vendors border the streets of any city in Japan.
Yakitori’s ongoing popularity is due to its convenience and versatility. It’s the ultimate finger food – easily managed by guests who are standing or holding drinks. Skewers can be quickly assembled and cooked on demand using limited grill space. The dish can be served as an appetiser, or contribute to a more substantial main course. It doesn’t matter if you prefer light or dark chicken meat, yakitori caters for all tastes – some diners favour gizzard or even chicken heart yakitori.
Types of yakitori
Negima is one of the most common types of yakitori in Japan today and is a popular dish in izakayas and at outdoor barbecues in Japan. It is made with sliced chicken breasts or thighs that are skewered together with spring onions. The ingredients are then skewered on bamboo and grilled over hot coals. Like other yakitori dishes, negima is usually seasoned with shio (Japanese salt) and served with tare (sweet and savoury sauce).
Tsukune are chicken meatball skewers made from a mix of minced chicken, egg, vegetables and spices. The meatballs are sometimes brushed with tare during grilling to add flavour.
Torikawa, sometimes referred to as kawa, are strips of fatty chicken skin seasoned with salt and grilled until crispy. Torikawa is also traditionally served with tare for dipping. The dish is often enjoyed as a snack or appetiser and prized for its crunchy texture.
Nankotsu is crunchy chicken cartilage (often from the breast or leg bone) placed on skewers and grilled over hot coals. Nonkotsu doesn’t have a strong flavour, and the texture is often described as very chewy. The dish is typically served with salt and lemon wedges on the side.
Making yakitori is really just a matter of picking out your tastiest chicken parts to skewer and grilling them over a charcoal fire. Common chicken parts include chicken heart, gizzard, liver, meatballs, thigh, and skin. Get creative with your accompanying ingredients and enjoy Japan’s number one fast food!
Peter has been a keen blogger and amateur food critic for over 20 years. When eating and drink Peter loves spending time with his family and friends.