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TokyoTreat Japanese Snacks BlogYakitori – The Quick Tasty Way To Enjoy Chicken

Yakitori – The Quick Tasty Way To Enjoy Chicken

By James Lau
May 01, 2022

Simple. Fast. Delicious. Chicken. Barbecue. There’s no better way to enjoy chicken than Yakitori. Think it’s just chicken on a skewer? Think again.

How many parts of the chicken can you name? Go on, I’ll wait, but I guarantee that no matter what you name, Japanese chefs have already figured out how to make it edible and serve it on a barbecued skewer, bursting full of delectable goodness.  

All About Yakitori

Featured as the star in specialty yakitori-ya (grilled chicken shop) but also found in izakayas (Japanese pubs), supermarkets, festivals, and the odd yatai (Japanese food cart), yakitori refers to bite-sized pieces of chicken that have been stacked onto a skewer and grilled over a charcoal fire, giving the meat a smoky flavor. 

Recently, some restaurants have begun to use electric grills to maintain the consistency of the heat, reducing the smokiness of the meat. Diners can usually choose to have the chef season the meat with either sauce or salt. However, some restaurants may withhold these options from their customers and instead serve the skewers with what they think is the best choice. 

But most importantly, yakitori is inexpensive, made-to-order, and is often enjoyed with a cold beer, Japanese sake, and other alcohol. In fact, for many, it is one of the tastiest izakaya foods that you can enjoy with a good drink.

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More Than Just Chicken on a Stick

Yakitori is most popular in Aomori and Tokushima Prefectures, followed by the Kanto region, and then Niigata, Nagano, and Yamanashi Prefectures. Many chain yakitori restaurants can usually be found in shopping arcades and near train stations, offering affordable meals to be enjoyed after work with colleagues and friends.  

It is also a popular Japanese festival food, often served in packs at the supermarket or fresh at food stalls at festivals like Hanami (cherry blossom viewing), summer festivals, and local festivals.

Although it seems simple, the cooking of yakitori is actually quite complicated. A common saying among yakitori chefs is “three years of skewering, a lifetime of grilling.” Learning how to skewer the meat can be accomplished quickly but ensuring that the meat is evenly grilled requires dedication. 

In fact, like many other great restaurants around the world, many yakitori-ya will often have their own special house sauces that compliments the chicken perfectly.  

A chef at a Japanese yakitori restaurant flips sticks of chicken with a large dipping pot of sauce next to his grilling station
It may not seem hard to grill chicken, but preparing and making sure each stick comes out perfectly is a skill that takes time to master. Image via Shutterstock

Types of Yakitori

Have you listed all the parts of the chicken you know now? What if I told you that Japanese chefs have figured out how to cook the chicken from (almost) head-to-claw? Don’t believe me? Let’s talk about some of the offerings that you can find at a yakitori-ya.

Momo – Chicken Thigh

This is a very common option that can be found in every place that serves yakitori. It consists of bite-sized pieces of thigh meat stacked on a skewer. Diners can choose to have them seasoned with sauce or salt.

Negima – Chicken and Spring Onion

Here comes another popular option that is enjoyed in all yakitori joints. The chefs will place pieces of chicken meat, usually momo, and similarly sized pieces of green onion in an alternating pattern, allowing for the diner to cut through the savoriness of the chicken with the sharp taste of the onion. Diners can choose to have them seasoned with sauce or salt.

Many sticks of yakitori with chicken breast and green onions alternating on a white plate on a table in a Japanese restaurant.
Don’t worry. If chicken thigh isn’t your thing, you can also order chicken breast. Image via Shutterstock

Tsukune – Chicken Meatballs

Using minced chicken, egg, vegetables, and spices, chefs create Japan’s answer to the Italian meatball and place them onto a skewer. Tsukune can be served as multiple balls on a skewer or one longer piece. They can sometimes be viewed as a measure of how skilled the chef is. Diners can choose to have them seasoned with sauce or salt.

Torikawa – Chicken Skin

Using their incredible knife skills, chefs cut the chicken skin into strips, fold the strips, and poke them onto a skewer. When grilled, the skin becomes crispy and gives off a satisfying crunch when eaten. Salt is the recommended seasoning for this dish.

Tebasaki – Chicken Wing

Another display of the chef’s knife skills, the chef takes the flats of the chicken wings and breaks them apart, spreading them over two skewers or one thicker skewer to allow the meat to cook evenly. The skin-side is cooked to golden perfection before it is served to customers. Salt is the recommended seasoning for this dish.

Bonjiri – Chicken Tail

Bet you never thought that you could use the chicken tail, did you? One of the more surprising offerings at a yakitori restaurant, the outside becomes crispy when cooked while the center oozes with collagen, making for a very nuanced bite. Salt is the recommended seasoning for this dish.

Seseri – Chicken Neck

Surprise number two on this list, the neck meat of a chicken is actually quite tasty. There is a large amount of fat on the meat and the meat is rich in flavor since the neck is always in constant motion. Salt is the recommended seasoning for this dish.

Four sticks of yakitori with a layer of sauce on them lay across a plate with a green leaf placed under them.
Although some of these types of yakitori sound strange, but they are actually very tasty and make sure not to waste any part of the chicken. Image via Shutterstock

Nankotsu – Chicken Cartilage

Cartilage is soft bone. This weird Japanese food gives off a nice crunch when you bite into it. That’s pretty much it. There’s not much meat attached to it but there’s a lot of collagen in it.

Some restaurants might call this dish “yagen nankotsu” after the shape of a traditional medicine grinder. Salt is the recommended seasoning for this dish. Also, it may sometimes appear in the chicken meatballs to add texture.

Reba – Chicken Liver

The Japanese “reba” actually comes from the German word for liver, “leber.” Liver is considered to be very healthy with plenty of nutrients, including those good for the heart. This dish can be seasoned with either sauce or salt.

Hatsu – Chicken Heart

Head-to-toe includes the heart! Another offal dish, the heart is cooked slightly differently than the other meat of the chicken. They are dipped in a sauce to marinate before being placed onto a skewer and grilled. 

The heart is low in fat, rich in flavor, and has a tender, juicy texture. It is usually seasoned with salt.

There’s more to yakitori than just this list! What other yakitori dishes have you tried? Let us know in the comments below!

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