Where Does Yakitori Come From?
Historically, religious reasons restricted consuming meat in Japanese food culture. Although chicken was not banned like other meats were, the smell of grilling meat was considered distasteful. So street stalls in Japan began to grill skewered chicken over charcoal—the smoke and sweet tare sauce was meant to cover up the smell of cooking meat. Yakitori eventually gained mainstream popularity in Japan during the mid 20th century. Although skewers were already a common part of the Japanese diet by this point, chicken was expensive prior to World War II. After the war ended, however, good cuts of chicken became more widely available and yakitori developed into a staple. Nowadays, it’s a go-to for the after-work crowd, who usually enjoy a beer while chowing down on yakitori.
In contemporary restaurants, yakitori typically has just two flavoring options: salt (shio), or a sweet soy-sauce-and-mirin glaze called tare (commonly called teriyaki sauce in the United States). People typically eat yakitori with the hands, although some people use chopsticks to slide the meat off of the stick. (A small dish should be provided for the spent skewers.) Although yakitori is usually cheap dish to enjoy, more upscale restaurants also like to tackle this favorite dish, elevating it with expensive jidori chicken (think of it as analogous to Kobe beef). Some restaurants also grill ingredients besides chicken, such as pork or vegetables.
Grilled on thin steel or bamboo rods, yakitori cooking techniques are fairly standard from eatery to eatery. Almost universally, yakitori houses, or yakitori-ya, slow cook the meat over binchōtan, a special type of clean-burning Japanese charcoal, over a specially designed charcoal grill. This allows the chef to continuously rotate the meat to keep it juicy. Because of this, the chicken develops a beautiful, barely charred crust. The sauce is a crucial part of the process. The chef usually dips the skewers twice, the first dip acting as a glaze, whereas the second coat serving as a sauce. The repeated uses of tare acquire more concentrated flavor with each dipped skewer.
What does vary is the cut of meat. Yakitori can be made of almost any part of the chicken, ranging from thigh meat (known as momo), to chicken liver (reba), to meatballs (tsukune). Other choice parts include chicken skin, neck, breast, cartilage, wings, and even nubs of crispy fat from chicken tails. Yakitori staples can also involve vegetables. For example, negima is a thigh meat skewer with naganegi onion.