A quintessential Japanese soul food, yakitori, or grilled chicken skewers, is a culinary exploration of the entire bird from neck to tail. It is cheap and cheerful, and a staple in Japan’s food culture.
To the uninitiated, it is simply skewered chicken grilled over charcoal fire and slathered with tare (sweet soy sauce and mirin mix), enjoyed for its distinct smoky char and with cold beer. In other words, a social eating experience in a boisterous izakaya.
Sure, that’s one way to enjoy it. However in recent years, yakitori has been slowly shedding its ‘beer fodder’ image, with a growing number of restaurants serving a refined interpretation. Wine and sake pairings are becoming common, and at the same time, chefs are exploring unusual cuts.
Yakitori is serious business. For starters, dedicated restaurants are using premium ‘jidori’ (think the poultry equivalent of Kobe beef) in their menu, especially to harvest the off-cuts. Then, different parts of the chicken are cooked to varying levels to achieve their best texture and flavour. While most are seasoned with tare, some only receive a sprinkling of salt or a touch of freshly grated wasabi.
White meat, meatballs and wings are common, but newcomers are often confused by the diverse choices. There’s the skin, soft bone, gizzard, heart and liver; then it swerves far left into ‘fear factor’ territory – think little nubs of fat from the bishop’s nose, aka the bottom (fatty and crispy when cooked well), and the uterus with attached yolk (creamy and crunchy). Whether you decide to explore yakitori at an izakaya or a Michelin-endorsed restaurant, our photo menu on the right will help you navigate the selections on offer.
Soft and juicy minced chicken, coated in sweet sauce. It sometimes comes with egg yolk to dip in.
Small pieces of breast meat, usually topped with wasabi to refresh your palate. Since it’s the least fatty part of the chicken, sasami is usually served medium rare to prevent it from tasting dry and tough.
closest meat to the bone it has rich flavours, making it a popular item. Don’t leave a morsel behind – you’ll love the crispy skin and the tender, juicy flesh inside.
Crispy and lightly charred on the surface, the liver’s rich, smooth texture is what foodies relish. Unlike beef or pork, chicken liver is lighter in taste and goes well with wine.
The fail-proof combination in a yakitori skewer, and the most popular order as well. The grilled leek is crunchy and full of flavour and perfectly matches the juiciness of the meat, which is usually thigh or breast.
This is basically skin from the neck. It’s chewy, crunchy but also fatty at the same time – extremely addictive.
Sure, this sounds like a challenge, and the hanging ovary (egg yolk) might shock you. But it’s delicious: the creamy, runny yolk; the smoky, crunchy fallopian tube; all brought together with a sweet soy glaze
The gizzard has a surrounding double muscle that is odourless and has a pleasant, crisp texture. It’s usually seasoned with salt.
Don’t be put off by the grilled chicken heart. It tastes surprisingly light, best enjoyed with just a sprinkling of salt. The unique texture can be rather addictive – and obviously there’s only one heart per chicken, making this a limited item on the menu.
A staple that’s served at all yakitori restaurants, the juicy, meaty thigh is easily the most ordered item on the menu.
Since it doesn’t have much flavour, nankotsu, or cartilage, is enjoyed for its crunchy texture. (Try it karaage-style; deep-fried chicken soft bones are very addictive.) There are usually two types of nankotsu: the soft end of the breastbone, and the knee cartilage adjoining the thigh and the drumstick.
How to enjoy your yakitori
On the table
Whether you’re enjoying yakitori in an izakaya or a restaurant, it’s all very simple and casual. Skewers are served one by one when ready. You pick them up, place them on the plate in front of you, and enjoy them with salt or spices (sansho pepper or chilli spice mix). When you’re done, place the empty skewers in the tall cup, which is usually to your right.