What is kushiyaki? Aren’t those Japanese skewers called yakitori?

by Joost Nusselder | Updated:  October 1, 2021

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If you love Japanese cuisine, then you might’ve noticed something called “kushiyaki” on the menu when you go out to eat. You ordered it, and when it arrived, it looked suspiciously similar to yakitori.

So what’s the deal? What’s kushiyaki and is it the same thing as yakitori?

What is kushiyaki

Well, “kushiyaki” is a Japanese word that describes foods that have been grilled or skewered.

Kushiyaki translates to “anything that can be skewered” in the Japanese language. It’s made of delicious bite sizes of meat and vegetables on a wooden or metal skewer that goes very well with beer or sake.

The word “kushi” means bamboo skewers used in the 17th century to spear the ingredients with, while “yaki” means grilled or fried foods.

Let’s now take a look at what exactly kushiyaki is, and how it’s different from yakitori.

What’s the origin of kushiyaki?

The practice of eating grilled meat on sticks is a uniquely Japanese tradition that started during the Edo period.

It was unfortunate that at the time kushiyaki was invented, eating meat was forbidden in Japan due to Buddhist conventions. But thankfully, with the arrival of the Meiji period and some Western influences, the people of Japan became more open to eating meat once again.

In the period that spans between WWI and WWII, kushiage (also called kushikatsu) gained popularity in the country. These are battered and deep-fried skewers.

Today, kushiyaki (both its grilled and fried variation) has become exceedingly popular in Japan and elsewhere.

And chefs, as well as home cooks, are constantly experimenting with all kinds of meat and vegetables in making new kushiyaki recipes!

Sometimes, restaurants classify them differently with 1 group belonging to the kushimono skewered and grilled food, and the other belonging to the yakimono (ja) skewered and grilled food.

Japanese people use both “yakitori” and “kushiyaki” interchangeably to refer to skewered meat collectively. However, only the term “yakitori” is used when the meat that’s skewered and grilled is chicken.

In some areas, such as Muroran, people refer to grilled pork as “yakitori” because it’s placed on bamboo skewers and cooked with the same yakitori sauce.

Although technically, it should be called “yakiton” (やきとん) as it’s called in all other places in Japan (it refers specifically to grilled pork).

Kabayaki is also a type of skewered/grilled food made of fish (usually eel).

However, chefs seldom categorize it as kushiyaki, because although they may be cooked over a charcoal grill with skewers, they aren’t served with skewers once they’re cooked, as kushiyaki dishes are.

Another variation of kushiyaki is “shioyaki”. This includes fish, sea bream (tai), and sweet fish ayu, which are grilled with salt and served without any bamboo skewers (removed) in classy restaurants.

At Japanese food stalls or yatai, ayu is sold on a skewer, but they are still not considered kushiyaki.

The popular Japanese delicacy Negi (scallion) or shishito (pepper) are also cooked with multiple bamboo skewers, but aren’t necessarily called kushiyaki.

Take a look at this post with everything you’ll want to know about Negi and Negima dishes.

What’s the difference between yakitori and kushiyaki?

It’s no coincidence that you landed on this page.

Although a lot of people are familiar with yakitori, they often mistake all other skewered and grilled food for yakitori as well. But it turns out it isn’t actually true; yakitori skewers are more specific!

Whatever your preference is, learning more about kushiyaki is a great way to learn more about the intricacies of Japanese cuisine.

But first, let’s define the terms kushiyaki and yakitori properly in order to know the difference between them.

What is yakitori?

Yakitori is a Japanese food that’s made of skewered grilled chicken.

The chicken meat is chopped into 1 to 2-inch cubes and then skewered along a kushi (串), which is made of bamboo, steel, wood, or other similar materials specifically made for skewering meat.

Afterward, the skewers are grilled over a charcoal fire.

The meat is typically seasoned with tare sauce or salt during cooking or afterward.

Kushiyaki vs yakitori

This has got to be the mother of all confusion in the culinary world.

In terms of popularity, surely yakitori has the upper hand, as it’s the more commonly known of the two.

However, kushiyaki is the term used to describe all types of skewered foods, including yakitori. So it should be considered as the larger contender and not the underdog!

As you can see, this shouldn’t even be a comparison. But it seems that “kushiyaki” has been left out of the vocabulary of restaurant patrons and is still largely unknown.

We have these 5 best yakitori tabletop grills reviewed which are excellent for kushiyaki use.

So what does the term “kushiyaki” really mean?

What does “kushiyaki” mean?

Perhaps the best way to find out what “kushiyaki” (串焼き) means is to use Google Translate. It’ll tell you that kushiyaki means “grilling on a skewer” or “spit-roasting”.

If you ask a Japanese chef who’s very familiar with the word, then he’ll tell you that kushiyaki is anything you can skewer, grill, and then eat.

It’s the word used to formally describe all types of skewered foods and, in fact, yakitori and yakiton are simply specific variations of kushiyaki!

Kushiyaki categories

Kushiyaki ingredients are cut into small pieces (the chef cuts them into almost uniform shapes and sizes) in order to cook evenly.

The shape and length of the skewers (kushi) vary from dish to dish. For example, the flat type of kushi is used for minced meat.

Meat

Foods included in this category are beef steak (gyūniku), pork meat (butaniku), and cartilage (nankotsu), as well as horse meat (baniku).

Seafood

For the seafood category, the Japanese scallop (hotate), minced and seasoned Atlantic horse mackerel (aji), prawn and shrimp (ebi), sardine (iwashi), sweet fish (ayu), squid, and cuttlefish (ika) all use the flat type skewer.

Vegetable

Meanwhile, for the vegetable category, Japanese pepper (shishito), garlic (ninniku), green bell pepper (piman), ginkgo nuts (ginnan), scallion (Negi), pumpkin (kabocha), potato, cherry tomato, eggplant (nasu), and onion (tamanegi) fit with flat skewers perfectly (wood or metal).

Kushiyaki seasoning

There are only 2 types of kushiyaki seasonings:

  • Salty
  • Salty-sweet

The salty type usually uses plain salt as its main seasoning.

The tare sauce belongs to the salty-sweet variety of kushiyaki sauces and it consists of mirin, sake, soy sauce, and sugar.

I wrote about these top cooking sakes a while back, which might be interesting to read if you’re looking to make this.

Sometimes, spices such as wasabi, Karachi, black pepper, Japanese pepper, shichimi, and powdered cayenne pepper are used to create the kushiyaki sauce. But the customer decides which spices they’ll use to suit their tastes.

Types of kushiyaki

Different types of kushiyaki

One type of kushiyaki that’s believed to be the oldest and most common of its kind is yakitori, which is chicken on bamboo skewers that are grilled over charcoal.

You may find various chicken parts on a yakitori skewer. This is completely normal and very delicious, despite the oddity of eating parts that aren’t normally considered edible in Western countries.

Yakiton is another type of kushiyaki. It uses pork slices, which are similarly cooked over a charcoal flame.

Kushiage is another variation of kushiyaki, but instead of grilled skewers, this one is fried and made with bite sizes of meat, vegetables, and sometimes even cheese (marinated in breadcrumbs and then deep-fried).

Each skewer is served while still hot off the grill and eaten with a dipping sauce that’s both thick and sweet to the taste.

Historians believe that kushiyaki first originated in the western part of Kansai roughly around 3 centuries ago.

Kushiage, which means “deep-fried skewers,” is the staple barbecue food in the Kansai region.

However, throughout Japan, it’s called kushikatsu, which means “deep-fried cutlets” since most skewers aren’t so different from chicken katsu and tonkatsu pork cutlets (like these).

Kushiyaki ingredients

Any food that can be placed on a skewer and grilled over charcoal flames or deep-fried can be considered kushiyaki.

Here’s how to prepare it:

The common chicken parts that are skewered are:

  • Sasami (chicken breast fillet)
  • Tsukune (chicken meatballs)

Meanwhile, the uncommon morsels include:

  • Heart
  • Tail
  • Chicken combs

For pork skewers, the following are common in most restaurants in Japan:

  • Buta bara (pork belly)
  • Negima (pork with leek)

On the other hand, unusual options include:

  • Kashira (pork jowl)
  • Shiro (intestine)
  • Pork liver

Beef kushiyaki skewers include:

  • Steaks
  • Sliced gyutan (beef tongue)

For seafood skewers, there are plenty of offerings, including:

  • Fish fillets
  • Squid
  • Shrimp
  • Octopus
  • Scallops

For vegetable skewer variants, basically any vegetable can be offered, including:

  • Shishito (Japanese green pepper)
  • Onions
  • Shitake mushrooms
  • Bacon-wrapped cherry tomatoes
  • Kushiyaki-style cheese and avocado skewers

Where to eat kushiyaki

Kushiyaki can be enjoyed at a wide variety of eateries.

You can find yakitori and yakiton in just about any Japanese restaurant with a grill, such as:

  • Izakaya, tachinomi (standing) bars
  • Wine bars
  • Pubs
  • Seafood restaurants
  • Yakitori and yakiton specialty restaurants

Most special restaurants may serve only 1 type of kushiyaki in their food establishments, which may be either chicken or pork. However, other kushiyaki restaurants will definitely have various types of kushiyaki on their menus.

If you’re looking for deep-fried kushiage, then you may not find them as plentiful as grilled skewers, as the deep fryer setup needed to make them is a completely different set of tools.

Thankfully, you can just go directly to kushiage specialty shops to enjoy them! The Shin-Sekai area of Osaka is littered with these specialty shops.

Kushiyaki etiquette

The best thing about kushiyaki is that you can order them one by one (or the preferred term, skewer by skewer), or as a set.

Upon motioning for the waiter to come to your table to take your order, they’ll ask you which sauce you’d prefer: tare (sauce) or shio (salt).

If you choose shio, then the chef will immediately sprinkle the salt over the grilled skewers while they’re being grilled.

And if you choose tare, then the chef will prepare the sweet-salty sauce on a separate small bowl for your dipping sauce and serve it together with the skewers.

While the choice is a matter of personal preference, shio is recommended for people who are curious to know how the ingredients taste like on their own.

While tare sauce, on the other hand, adds an extra layer of flavor to the cooked meat. This is especially true for deep-fried kushiage.

And there’s this other thing: Japanese restaurants have a strict rule about their dipping sauce – absolutely no double-dipping!

All customers who dine in a kushiage restaurant are warned not to dip their freshly fried skewer into the communal dipping sauce more than once.

The reason may be more practical than traditional, as Japanese people value good hygiene practices.

Since the sauce is pooled into a single communal bowl, they may want to avoid spreading diseases.

If you really need more tare sauce, then just use a piece of raw cabbage in order to scoop some from the communal bowl and carefully spread it along your kushiage skewers.

Table manners are highly valued in all Japanese restaurants, so after eating your kushiyaki skewers, throw them inside a cylindrical container that’s provided by the restaurant (it’s usually located beside the table).

Read also: Etiquette and table manners when eating Japanese food

Health benefits of kushiyaki

If you’ve been enjoying Japanese food for a while now, then you’d know that most, if not all Japanese dishes are quite healthy.

This explains why most of the elderly can still do farming work and live in the mountains on their own with almost no assistance from caregivers or medical professionals.

From dashi broth to the most exquisite ramen, there’s a plethora of super healthy food you can find in any Japanese cookbook!

It’s the same with kushiyaki, as the range of raw materials for its ingredients can be found in red meat (e.g. beef, pork, and other livestock), poultry (i.e. chicken, duck, and more), seafood (e.g. fish, shrimp, cuttlefish, and more), and vegetables (e.g. shishito, shitake mushrooms, onions, tomatoes, etc.).

The nutritional value from beef and pork are:

  • L-carnitine amino acid, which helps burn fat for energy and is good for the heart, people with type 2 diabetes, and losing weight.
  • Glutathione which has anti-aging properties, helps with illness prevention, and strengthens the immune system.
  • High in protein, which helps improve muscle mass.
  • Rich in minerals, which include zinc, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, potassium, phosphorus, and selenium.
  • Helps prevent iron deficiency anemia.
  • Carnosine (beta-analyl-L-histidine), a potent amino acid that helps prevent glycation (aging of the cells).
  • B vitamin complexm which includes vitamins B2, B3, B5, B6, and B12.
  • Linoleic acid (CLA), which helps improve insulin sensitivity.
  • Creatine, which is a natural performance enhancer chemical.

For chicken yakitori, the health benefits include:

  • High in protein.
  • Rich in vitamins and minerals, which may include the B-vitamin complex, vitamin D, calcium, potassium, and sodium.
  • Can help in losing weight.
  • Control blood pressure.
  • Anticancer properties.
  • Reduces bad cholesterol in the body.
  • Helps treat common colds.

Health benefits for fish and other seafood ingredients in kushiyaki are:

  • High-quality protein, iodine, and various vitamins and minerals.
  • Can help lower the risk of heart attacks and strokes due to the omega-3 content in fish.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids are also crucial in growth and development.
  • May boost brain health.
  • May help prevent and even treat depression, all thanks to omega-3 once again!
  • A good source of vitamin D.
  • May reduce your risk of autoimmune diseases.
  • May help prevent asthma in children.
  • Helps maintain your visual acuity, even in old age.
  • May improve sleep quality.

Health benefits for eating vegetable-based kushiyaki are:

  • The onion, for instance, has a considerable amount of vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
  • Rich in vitamin C, vitamin B6 (pyridoxine), and vitamin B9 (folate).
  • Good for the heart.
  • Loaded with antioxidants.
  • Contains cancer-fighting compounds.
  • Helps control blood sugar levels.
  • Helps boost bone density.
  • Has antibacterial properties.
  • Helps improve your digestive tract.
  • Fights obesity (particularly with shiitake mushrooms).
  • Boosts your immune system.
  • Boosts energy and brain function.
  • Promotes skin health.

The biggest benefit of a kushiyaki diet is the variety of foods you can eat. You should try not to only eat meat and chicken yakitori, but to also try veggies and fish as well.

Give kushiyaki a try

So it turns out that while yakitori is a type of kushiyaki, not all kushiyaki is yakitori!

So expand your palate and give the other types of kushiyaki a try. You never know what you’ll discover!

Check out our new cookbook

Bitemybun's family recipes with complete meal planner and recipe guide.

Try it out for free with Kindle Unlimited:

Read for free

Joost Nusselder, the founder of Bite My Bun is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new food with Japanese food at the heart of his passion, and together with his team he's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with recipes and cooking tips.