Back in 1986 I tagged along on one of Joe's business trips and spent ten days in Tokyo. During the day, while Joe was in business meetings, I passed the time in a variety of ways. Besides shopping in the Ginza (one of the most luxurious shopping districts in the world), I took classes in flower arranging and origami, attended an official tea ceremony, and, got to see where the exquisite fresh-water Kasumi pearls come from!
In the evenings we were wined and dined by corporate executives in amazing restaurants (too numerous to mention), but, I did eat sushi long before it became an American trend, and, Kobe beef before most foodies in the USA had ever heard of it. We stayed in the Imperial Hotel (this is a photo of their lobby and grand staircase), which set a standard in hospitality and etiquette that I've never forgotten and can only be learned by experiencing it!
On the last day of our stay, because of travel arrangements, I went along with the men while they completed their business. We traveled upwards (up a mountain) into the hills for Joe to "take a look" at an option for a manufacturing facility. There were about 20 women in a room about the size of my kitchen (which is a big 500-ish sq. ft.), sitting in workstations lined up in rows like desks in a one-room schoolhouse.
From the moment I walked in with the contingent of businessmen, I just knew the women workers were astonished to see a Western woman in the group -- and, I was allowed to speak too -- and, I did. I greeted each of them. The facility was spotless, the air crisp and clean, and, these gals made yakitori (on two small charcoal grills) with rice balls for lunch. We all sat at tables and ate outside as a group.
The view was breathtaking, the food was excellent, and, historically, it is one of the best foodie memories of my life! Now let us get to the 'meat' of yakitori making (and there is a lot to learn):
The Yakitori Facts (the long and not so short of it):
I've packed a lot of yakitori info in the next few paragraphs so read carefully:
A bit about yakitori: "yakitori" literally means "grilled chicken", with "yaki" being the Japanese word for "grilled" and "tori" being the word for "bird/chicken". The word yakitori was first written in a cookbook in 1643 referencing duck, quail and pheasant. It became popular after WWII (in the 50's), when American chickens became a common ingredient for the Japanese people. In Japan, 6"- 8" kebobs of chicken morsels, naganegi (long onions similar to leeks) and green pepper are briefly grilled over hot binchotan charcoal*. During the grilling process the yakitori is brushed with or dipped into a sweet soy-based sauce called yakitori no tare ("tare" is the Japanese word for "sauce")** at least twice: once when the food is about 75% cooked and a second time about 1 minute before serving. When served, shio (freshly ground sea salt), shichimi (a seven-spice chili pepper mixture) and sancho/mountain powder (the dried berry of a type of prickly Ash tree with a tangy lemony flavor) are served at the table for seasoning. In Japan, yakitori is usually eaten at home, but, it pairs great with drinks too, which is why you'll find it sold as streetfood at izakaya (Japanese tapas-type bars), to office workers scurrying to catch trains or perched on a stool with a beer waiting to catch the train home. It's easy to understand how yakitori became one of America's favorite Japanese dishes!
In Japan, they skewer and grill like-morsels (all leg, all thigh, all breast, etc.) of almost every part of the chicken, with leg and thigh meat considered the best because it's more juicy and flavorful than the breast. You simply order your favorite part or parts, by the individual skewer, as many as you want. Here's a list of what you can expect to find and order from a yakitori menu:
negima (pieces of leg meat)
kashiwa (pieces of thigh meat)
sagari (pieces of breast meat)
sasami (pieces of breast tenderloin)
tsukune (ground, round, chicken meatballs)
harami (very crispy thin strips of meat from the rib/diaphram)
soriresu (soft, juicy morsels of meat found near the thigh joint)
tebasaki (soft, juicy morsels of meat found near the wing joint)
hatsu (whole hearts)
leba/kimo (pieces of liver)
kawa (crispy, chewy skin of the leg, thigh, breast and neck)
nankotsu (cartilage from meatier parts of the chicken: knee, breast and thigh)
bonjiri (only one crispy tail per chicken and one skewer of these is considered a rare delicacy)
*A bit about binchotan charcoal: Made from oak and kishu binchotan, it is commonly thought that this special charcoal burns particularly hot, but the reverse is true. It burns at a lower temperature than ordinary charcoal and for a longer period of time. Because it burns clean and odorless (no smoke or unpleasant smell), it allows the flavor of the food to shine through, which makes it a favorite of yakitori restaurant chefs. When burning, it releases large amounts of infrared rays, which produces fish, meat and/or poultry with a crispy exterior and moist, juicy center. If you're into charcoal and want to experiment with binchotan, you'll be happy to know it's available on-line (about $25.00 for a 5-pound bag)!
** A bit about yakitori no tare: A good homemade yakitori sauce is always richer, thicker and more flavorful than a store-bought sauce, but, there are some pretty good brands on the shelves of Asian markets everywhere. Yakitori sauce is quite easy to make using some easy-to-find ingredients: sake, mirin, dark soy sauce, tamari sauce, sugar, garlic, ginger and occasionally a couple of roasted chicken leg bones. It is said that some yakitori chefs just keep adding ingredients to their pot of sauce and many have kept one single pot ongoing for over ten years. This type of "ongoing sauce" process/method produces a particularly rich and flavorful tare sauce because Japanese chefs customarily dip the skewered food directly into the pot of sauce, rather than brushing it on, so the sauce accumulates a lot of additional flavor from the hot chicken juices.
Please join me for my next two Kitchen Encounters recipe posts:
~ Japanese 'Yakitori no Tare' (BBQ/Basting Sauce) ~
~ Japanese 'Yakitori' (Skewered & Grilled Chicken) ~
(Commentary and photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2013)
(Photos of Ginza, Imperial Hotel Lobby & Binchotan Charcoal courtesy of Wikipedia)
(Photos of Japanese Mountainside Road & Array of Yakitori on Grill courtesy of JapanStyle.com)