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Yakitori: the ultimate guide to Japanese grilled skewers

by Joost Nusselder | Updated:  July 23, 2022

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Believe it or not, Japanese chefs are completely badass when it comes to making delicious protein recipes.

With the signature savory, spicy punch inherent to Asian dishes accompanied by a great sauce, every recipe just tastes so wholesome.

One of those recipes is Yakitori!

Yakitori- the ultimate guide to Japanese grilled skewers

Appearing back in 1912, Yakitori is a Japanese grilled chicken dish served with a cold beer. The chicken is cut into bite-sized pieces, marinated in soy sauce, pierced with bamboo skewers (Kushi), and grilled. The skewers are glazed with tare from time to time, and are served and eaten hot.

But is that all you need to know about this iconic Japanese street dish? No way!

This article will dive deep into everything you need to know about Yakitori, from its detailed description to history and anything in between.

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What is yakitori?

Yakitori is skewered chicken that is made on a Kushi. This is a skewer that is made of steel, bamboo, and similar materials.

After being skewered, the meat is grilled over a charcoal fire.

The meat in yakitori is cut into small sections to provide an even cook. The charcoal flame gives the meat a crunchy texture.

Yakitori is available in sweet or salty sweet varieties.

  • The salty variety is typically seasoned with salt only.
  • Salty sweet yakitori is flavored with a special sauce that contains mirin, sake, soy sauce, and sugar.

In some cases, the meat can also be flavored with cayenne pepper, Japanese pepper, black pepper or wasabi.

Because the dish is so common, there are also at home appliances available for making yakitori. These are known as takujo konro or mini-grillers.

They work like a broiler to cook the food that is placed on top with a heating element inside the device.

In the past few decades, the popularity of Yakitori has quickly transcended borders.

Apart from Japan, it is now a popular street dish in many parts of the world, with western countries like the US on top.

Being an informal dish, you will find it either in bars, special yakitori restaurants (Izakayas), or on a charcoal grill at someone’s backyard party.

Since Yakitori, just like yaki onigiri, has long been served with a glass of beer, it has somehow become customary and hence enhances the fun of the whole dish.

You could also try it with some dipping sauce to add a punch of savory goodness to your dish, though you’ll be deviating from the traditions doing this.

The dish is often made by combining different parts of the chicken over a bamboo skewer.

The most common chicken parts served in a yakitori restaurant consist of chicken thigh, chicken wings, chicken breast, chicken hearts, and chicken liver.

Right now, you will find myriad combinations on bamboo skewers, from vegetables, tofu, mushrooms, and pork belly to beef and anything in between.

Purist would say yakitori needs to have chicken, and other grilled foods on a skewer is called kushiyaki, but others use the terms interchangeably.

One thing all the varieties have in common? They taste downright delicious.

Origins of yakitori: from forbidden to beloved

You may know it or not, but this seemingly ordinary and simple food has quite a long history filled with a lot of amazing facts.

The word Yakitori first appeared on the menu for the Lord of Komoro castle in the Edo Era, roughly between 1603 and 1838.

However, it hadn’t become mainstream for two reasons.

First was strict dietary restrictions in Japan, where consuming beef, pork, and poultry was prohibited, and roosters were just there to herald the dawn.

People could not consume any meat, except for smaller birds like pheasant or duck, as those were deemed “medicinal” and consumed for their nutritional value.

The second reason was the predominant following of Buddhist philosophy that essentially advocated a vegetarian diet.

Anyone who deviated from it was frowned upon. Besides, the smell of grilled chicken or meat was even considered disgusting!

This changed in the next few years, with the arrival Meji era that extended from 1868 to 1912.

It was the time when the emperor himself consumed beef and broke the 1200-year-old tradition.

The monks resisted the change, but that was all in vain.

Afterward, consuming meat was slowly normalized, and many Japanese shops started selling pig and chicken dishes on the streets.

But even then, the common disgust for grilled food still continued.

Plus, chicken meat at the time was still an expensive delicacy. So it wouldn’t sell either way.

To cope with that, the vendors devised a very convenient solution.

They started making chicken skewers with chicken parts that weren’t used by luxury restaurants with binchotan coal.

As mentioned earlier, those parts mainly were chicken thighs, chicken hearts, chicken liver, and even the intestines.

Given that this coal had a powerful smell, it not only masked the “unpleasant” odor but gave the chicken skewers a delightful, smoky, and woody flavor.

The chefs also covered the skewers with a sweet-savory and sticky tare, which further enhanced the taste and gave the food a unique aroma.

The dish was later named Yakitori, which literally translates as “grilled bird” (yaki stands for grilled), and became a Japanese after-work street food staple.

Although native to Japan initially, the dish’s popularity increased at an explosive rate after the industrial breeding of animals in the 1950s.

Moreover, due to ample supply, the price of the dish went down even more, making it accessible to every person.

You can now find the dish in many yakitori restaurants across Japan and many western countries, in many different forms and styles, with various ingredients.

How do you eat yakitori?

Compared to other dishes from Japan that are often served as a delicacy, Yakitori is quite an informal dish that is supposed to be eaten right off the grill.

You can also choose to pick your own perfect seasoning in most yakitori restaurants. The options include tare, which is sweet and salty, or plain salt, which is well, only salty.

Yakitori is supposed to be eaten off the skewers with hands.

You could also use chopsticks, but it’s not conventional and is often considered an insult to the chef’s hard work.

You can either eat yakitori as an appetizer or as a complete meal.

If you choose the second option, order it in batches, usually one or two skewers at a time.

Ordering a huge quantity at once results in cold meat, which isn’t how you eat yakitori! As mentioned, grilled yakitori is best eaten hot.

Wanting to make yakitori at home and wondering what the best grill for this dish is, I’ve put the top options in a list for you here.

Why is yakitori served on skewers only?

There are several reasons for this. The most obvious one is that this method stays true to Japanese traditions.

Plus, as the Yakitori recipe requires basting the chicken meat with tare and then grilled above special binchotan charcoal, being on skewers makes the process much easier.

Another reason is that Yakitori is “quick food.” You simply just slip it off the skewers with your hand and enjoy it as the flavors burst into your mouth.

It’s not fancy food and is not supposed to be eaten the fancy way.

Loved your skewers? Learn how to say “thank you for the food” in Japanese

Conclusion

Japan is revered for its appetizing street food, and Yakitori is one of the best things that have come out of the country’s fantastic cuisine.

Despite the love-hate story of grilled meat in Japan in the starting days, the dish found its way through the challenges and is now the go-to choice of every street food lover in Japan and around the world.

What makes Yakitori so unique is all the fantastic flavors it gives off despite being made with minimal ingredients and its availability for a minimal price.

Thus, not only can anyone make it, but also get it ready-made from their favorite izakaya restaurants.

In this article, we covered all the basics about the dish, from answering the general question of “what is Yakitori?” to its exciting history and much more!

Next, find out exactly how to make yakitori at home (recipe + cooking tips)

Check out our new cookbook

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

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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.