Yakitori is what would be called “cocktail food” outside Asia. That’s the easiest way to understand yakitori. And it’s great with sake. Or beer. That’s the most popular way it’s consumed in Japan. Like cocktail food. It isn’t paired with rice nor bread but with alcoholic drinks. It’s a culture thing. Restaurants that serve yakitori are known as izakaya which, conceptually, are similar to Spanish tapas bars.
But unlike Spanishtapas,yakitoriis also sold and served as a portable food.Yakitori-yaaresmall specialty shopsthat sellyakitoriand not much else. Then, there are the stalls and carts calledyataiwhich sellyakitorias street food.
If you’re cooking yakitori at home, however, and the people who are going to eat the grilled salty-sweet morsels are members of your family that may or may not include children, there is no reason why yakitori has to be served with alcoholic drinks. Serve it with rice and it’s just as lovely. Or serve yakitori by itself.
Is yakitori always cooked using chicken fillet?
Fillets are not the only cuts of the chicken for yakitori. Offal like liver, gizzard and tail, and bone-in cuts like wings, can be skewered and grilled, and the grilled result is yakitori too.
At home, we like to use chicken thigh fillets, skin on, and we baste them with tare. There is a simpler and easier way to cook yakitori. Just put the chicken on the grill, sprinkle with salt and cook. It’s called shio yakitori. But we like nuance of tare. The interplay of sweet and salty, with a little heat, is irresistible
What is tare sauce?
It’s a syrupy sweet-salty sauce. It can be bought in bottles but if your pantry is stocked with Japanese staples, it is simple enough to make it at home. You measure soy sauce, sake and mirin, add sugar and ginger, dump everything in a pan and you let the mixture boil gently until reduced by half.
Again, boil the tare sauce ingredients until reduced by half. You can’t take a short cut by just mixing the tare ingredients and brushing the mixture directly on the meat. For two reasons.
- You want to boil off the alcohol taste of sake leaving only the rich undertones of the wine. If you don’t, the sauce will leave a nasty flavor in the mouth.
- Without reducing the tare, the mixture will be too thin. Watery, in fact. Brush watery liquid on the chicken fillets and it will just flow down instead of sticking to the chicken. You can’t expect the flavors of the sauce to be absorbed effectively that way.
So,yakitoriis just grill and baste?
Well, yes, although if we are to be more precise, it’s flip, baste, flip, baste, repeat and repeat until the chicken is cooked through. And, of course, there are a few tricks to make sure that you get the best texture and flavor.
- First, make sure the grill is hot before you lay your skewered chicken on it.
- Second, don’t start brushing tare on the chicken immediately. Leave until the undersides are a bit cooked (meaning, the meat has lost its raw appearance), then flip and brush.
Brush the tare on the chicken lightly. Don’t drown the chicken thinking that the more sauce you brush on the meat every time, the chicken will come out more flavorful. The meat can only absorb so much sauce each time and what it can’t soak up will just fall off. It is repeated brushing that does the trick. So, brush lightly but repeatedly. And make sure to use the tip of the brush bristles to dab sauce directly into the nooks and crannies.
Easy yakitori with tare sauce
- 8 to 12 bamboo skewers
- ½ cup soy sauce (I used Kikkoman)
- ½ cup sake
- ½ cup mirin
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1 teaspoon finely grated ginger
- Stir all the ingredients for the tare sauce in a small pan. Cook over medium heat, uncovered, until reduced by half. It will take about 20 minutes.
- While the tare reduces, soak the bamboo skewers in water (so they don’t catch fire on the grill).
- Pat the chicken fillets dry with paper towels and cut into bite-size pieces.
- Start heating up the grill (I used a stovetop grill; a charcoal grill will give the chicken even better flavor).
- Thread the chicken with the bamboo skewers, about three to four pieces per skewer, with a piece of scallion between each piece.
- Lay the skewered chicken and scallions on the hot grill. Do not move for a minute to allow the underside to brown. Flip then brown the other side.
- Flip the skewered chicken and scallions and start brushing the tops and sides with the tare sauce.
- Flip the skewered chicken and scallions every minute or two, brushing the tops and sides with tare with every flip.
- Repeat the flipping and brushing three to four times until the chicken pieces are cooked through.
- Optionally sprinkle the yakitori with sesame seeds before serving.