What is Kushiyaki? Aren’t those Japanese skewers called Yakitori?

                by Joost Nusselder | Updated:  December 22, 2020

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Kushiyaki is a Japanese word that describes poultry and non-poultry items, which have been grilled or skewered.

Kushiyaki means “anything that can be skewered” in the Japanese language and is 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 take a look at what exactly kushiyaki is, and how it’s different from yakitori.

Yakitori vs kushiyaki explained

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 influence 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) which were battered and deep-fried skewers gained popularity in the country.

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 terms “yakitori” and “kushiyaki” interchangeably to refer to skewered meat collectively; however, only the term yakitori is used when the meat that’s skewered is chicken.

In some areas as Muroran, people refer to grilled pork as “yakitori,” because it is placed on skewers and cook with the same yakitori sauce.

Although technically it should be called skewered and grilled pork (やきとん) as it is called in all other places in Japan.

Kabayaki is also a type of skewered/grilled food; however, chefs seldom categorize it as kushiyaki, because although they may be cooked over a charcoal grill with skewers, they are not served with the skewers once they’re cooked as kushiyaki dishes are.

Other variations of kushiyaki are called shioyaki – these include fish, sea bream (tai) and sweet fish ayu, which are grilled with salt and served without any skewers (removed) in classy restaurants.

At 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 skewers, but are not 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?

Although a lot of foreigners are familiar with yakitori, they often mistake all other skewered and grilled food for yakitori as well. Which is fine, but it turns out it isn’t actually true, yakitori skewers and kushiyaki can be everything.

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

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

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

What is Yakitori?

Yakitori is a Japanese cuisine of skewered chicken that’s grilled over charcoal.

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

Afterward, they are grilled over a charcoal fire.

The meat is typically seasoned with tare sauce or salt during or after it is cooked.

Kushiyaki vs Yakitori

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

In terms of a popularity contest surely the yakitori has the upper hand as it is the more commonly known of the two.

However, kushiyaki is the term used to describe all types of skewered foods including yakitori; therefore 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 to 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 and it will tell you that kushiyaki means “grilling on a skewer,” or “spit-roasting”.

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

It is the word to use to formally describe all types of skewered foods and, in fact, yakitori and yakiton, are simply specific variations of kushiyaki.

Types of kushiyaki

Different types of kushiyaki

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

The skewers made for kushiyaki which are called “Kushi” are either processed from Japanese cypress or bamboo, and the shape and length of the skewers vary from dish to dish.

For example, the flat type Kushi is used for minced meat.


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


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.


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) fits with flat skewers perfectly (whether wood or metal).


There are only 2 types of kushiyaki seasonings and they are:

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 sake’s a while back, that 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 is used to create the kushiyaki sauce, but the customer decides which spices he’ll use that suits his taste.

Types of Kushiyaki

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

You may find various chicken parts on a yakitori skewer and this is completely normal and very delicious despite the oddity of eating chicken parts that are not normally considered edible in Western countries.

Yakiton is another type of kushiyaki and unlike yakitori; this one actually 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 is 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 is called kushikatsu, which means “deep-fried cutlets,” because most skewers are not so different from chicken katsu and tonkatsu pork cutlets (like these).

Kushiyaki Ingredients

Any food that can be placed in a skewer and grilled over charcoal flame or deep-fried can be considered as kushiyaki.

Here’s how to prepare it:

The common chicken parts that are skewered are:

Meanwhile, the uncommon morsels include:

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

On the other hand, unusual options include:

Beef skewers include:

For seafood skewers, there are plenty of offerings including:

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

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:

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’ll look for deep-fried kushiage, then you may not find them as plentiful as grilled skewers, as the deep fryer set-up 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 as the preferred term should be skewer by skewer), or as a set.

Upon motioning for the waiter to come to your table to take your order, he will 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 the tare sauce, on the other hand, adds an extra layer of flavor to the cooked meat.

This is especially true for the 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 the Japanese people value good hygiene practices and 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).

Health Benefits of Kushiyaki

If you’ve been enjoying Japanese food for more than a year of your life now, then you would know that most, if not all Japanese dishes are quite healthy.

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

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

It is 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 other poultry), 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:

For the chicken yakitori, the health benefits include:

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

Health benefits for eating vegetable-based kushiyaki are:

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

Ever had trouble finding Japanese recipes that were easy to make?

We now have "cooking Japanese with ease", our full recipe book and video course with step-by-step tutorials on your favorite recipes.

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.