Juicy, smoky, skewered chicken wasn’t always Japan’s thing. From the early 1600s to the mid-1800s, Buddhist beliefs meant eating meat was frowned upon. This slowly changed in the Meiji era (1868-1912), when street stalls started selling chicken cooked over hot charcoal. By the 1950s, large scale chicken farming meant that ‘yakitori’ – literally meaning ‘grilled chicken’ – paired with an ice-cold beer became a late-night food fixture for hungry salarymen.
Today, yakitori-ya (yakitori restaurants) and izakayas sell skewers using every part of the chicken – thigh, liver, neck, gizzard, skin, kidneys, hearts, even cartilage. The cooking itself, while seemingly simple, is far from it. Knowing when to turn the skewers, when to season them, and having an innate sense of when they’re done (lest they get dry) is what separates novices from masters.
Yakitori is often offered with a choice of shio (salt) or tare (pronounced tah-reh), a thick, sweet sauce that’s a key seasoning ingredient of dishes such as ramen. Most chefs have their own secret recipe.
So, where can you grab some solid skewers? A good bet in NYC is the newly opened Torien in NoHo. Launched in January by the world’s most famous yakitori chef, Yoshiteru Ikegawa, who also runs Tokyo’s legendary 17-seat restaurant Torishiki, Torien offers a 14-course yakitori omakase meal for $150.
On east London’s Kingsland Road, meanwhile, a local favourite is Jidori, which cooks fresh, free-range birds on custom-made Kama-Asa Shoten grills from Japan. Further east in Hackney is the excellent Peg, a Japanese-influenced wine-bar/restaurant from the team behind P. Franco and Bright.
Breaking it down:
Yaki (grilled) + tori (bird).
A restaurant that specialises in yakitori.
A generic term for all skewered and grilled meat and vegetables.
The skewer (i.e. stick) itself, often made from bamboo.
A sweet-savoury sauce
The white charcoal used in cooking.
Thigh meat with leeks