Yakitori is a Japanese skewered chicken, cooked on a griller with either sweet soy sauce or just salt. Great for entertaining a big crowd as it is a kind of finger food. It is so tasty and easy to eat that you will not realise how many skewers you eat!
Yakitori (焼き鳥) is probably one of the most popular dishes in Japan. It is so popular that in Japan there are many shops and restaurants that specialise in just yakitori. It is of course one of the regular street foods sold at food stands along with Yakisoba (Japanese Stir Fried Noodles) and Okonomiyaki (Japanese Savoury Pancake) when festivals are on.
In the basement of department stores where the food court is located or in supermarkets, there are always yakitori shops and many people buy skewers of different kinds of take away yakitori for dinner. I do not think most Japanese households make yakitori at home from scratch anymore because they can buy freshly made yakitori from the nearby shops easily.
I certainly have not seen my sister in Tokyo making them when I stayed there. She always buys yakitori from the shop. But here in Sydney, we have to make it ourselves. It takes a bit of time to put through small pieces of meat onto skewers but the effort certainly is worthwhile.
The word “yaki” (焼き) comes from the verb “yaku” (焼く) which means grill or bake. And “tori” (鳥) is bird or chicken in the case of meat. So yakitori literally translates to “grilled chicken”. However, these days even some of the specialty yakitori shops serve other kind of meets such as pork and vegetables grilled on skewers.
If you go to one of the yakitori restaurants in Japan, you will be amazed to see how many different parts of chicken are on the menu. Common menu items are:
- Negima (ねぎま, chicken and shallots/scallions)
- Momo (もも, chicken thigh)
- Mune (むね, chicken breast)
- Sasami (ささみ, chicken tenderloin)
- Bonjiri (ぼんじり, chicken tail)
- Kawa (皮, chicken skin)
- Tsukune (つくね, chicken mince ball)
- Tebasaki (手羽先, chicken wings)
- Rebah (レバー, liver)
- Hatsu (ハツ, heart)
- Sunagimo (砂肝, gizzard)
- Yagen or nankotsu (ヤゲンor軟骨, cartilage)
In the above list, negima is the only one which has a bit of vegetables, i.e. shallots/scallions. Negima is made by placing shallots/scallions in between chicken pieces. The word “negi” means shallots/scallions and “ma” means in between. Make sense? You can see uncooked negima skewers in the photo below. Other skewers without negima is momo (chicken thigh).
There are two main kinds of yakitori flavours – tare (タレ, sauce) and shio (塩, salt). Tare is made of soy sauce, mirin and sugar, with or without sake (Japanese rice wine). It is made by mixing these ingredients and condensing it into a stronger flavour and thicker sauce. When grilling, you baste the sauce onto the meat.
Shio flavour is simply made by sprinkling salt over the meat when grilling.
Most of the chicken parts listed above are great with either tare or shio flavour. But I think liver and heart taste better with tare while chicken wings are nicer with shio.
In today’s recipe, I am sharing negima (chicken and shallots/scallions) and momo (chicken thigh) with tare flavour.
The skewers for yakitori are made from bamboo. The most commonly used yakitori skewer is quite thin (about 3mm/1/8” diameter) and pointy at one end so that you can get the meat through easily. It is called “marugushi” (丸串, round skewer). The word “maru” (丸) means round and “gushi” comes from the word “kushi” (串) meaning skewer.
The length varies, but usually it’s about 15cm/6” which is just the right length if you use a specialised yakitori griller as the width of the griller is 10cm. The yakitori shops in Japan certainly use 15cm skewers. But I sometimes use longer skewers as it is easier to hold.
Other types of bamboo skewers used for yakitori include hiragushi (平串, flat skewer) and teppogushi (鉄砲串, gun skewer) both of which have a flat squarish stick with a pointy end on one side. The gun skewers differ from the flat skewers on the other end of the stick as it has a wider tab to make it easier to hold. With the tab at the end, it makes the skewer look like guns (teppo in Japanese).
Because of its square shape it holds the meat more securely, especially when you cook tsukune (meat ball) of which I am intending to post a recipe soon.
There is a special griller for yakitori. Its shape is a long rectangle block and inside the block where the charcoal is placed is lined with stones. Then the yakitori is placed on top. They are quite handy to cook yakitori as the width of the heated area is about 10cm/4” and it is just right for the yakitori skewers.
See the photo below of our yakitori griller which I carried back from Japan last year when my son half-jokingly asked me to get one. It was 10kg/22Lbs! I was quite annoyed with my son when he told me when I got home that he was half joking.
So I decided to have a yakitori day soon after that and made him prepare & cook yakitori. The photo is from the yakitori day and we cooked not only negima (chicken and shallots/scallions) and momo (chicken thigh) but tsukune (chicken mince balls), tebasaki (chicken wings), pork belly, asparagus rolls, shiitake mushrooms and onions. Yum!
I know most household do not have such a special griller and there is no need for it. The best alternative is BBQ with grill plate. You could use griddle as well, though you might find that the sauce start burning as the plate accumulates the sauce.
You could also cook yakitori in the oven using a griller/broiler. I have included the method of cooking oven grilled yakitori in the recipe. The photo below is how I paced yakitori to cook under the oven grill. I used a deep baking tray and a rack.
You don’t marinate chicken before grilling yakitori. The sauce is easy to make and once you put the meat onto skewers, just grill them and baste the sauce from time to time. That’s all it takes! I hope you try it.
- 12 bamboo skewers soaked in water for 30 minutes (Note 1)
- 500g (1lb) chicken thigh fillets , cut into 2.5cm (1”) cubes (Note 2)
- 100g (3.5oz) shallots/scallions , white and green firm parts only, cut into 3.5mm/ 1½”
- 75ml (2.5oz) soy sauce (normal Japanese soy sauce)
- 75ml (2.5oz) mirin
- 1 tbsp sugar
Add sauce ingredients to a pot and bring to a boil. Turn down the heat to medium or medium low and simmer for about 5 minutes to reduce the quantity by about a third. (Note 3).
To make momo (chicken thigh), thread around 5 pieces of chicken onto the skewers.
To make negima yakitori skewers, start with chicken and alternately thread chicken pieces and shallots/scallions, ending with chicken. I put through 4 chicken pieces with 3 shallots/scallions but you could have 3 chickens with 2 shallots/scallions. (Note 4)
The distance between the hot charcoal and where the skewers are placed should be about 5-6cm (2-2½”). (Note 5)
In the case of BBQ, oil (not in ingredients) the grill.
Using a brush, baste both sides of skewers with sauce and cook for 4-5 minutes.
Turn it over and baste the up side (cooked side) while cooking 3-4 minutes.
Turn it over again and baste the up side (cooked side) while cooking for 30 seconds or so.
Turn it over once more to cook for 30 seconds or so. (Note 6)
Remove from the griller and place it onto a plate. Serve immediately.
Turn the oven grill on to high.
Line a large baking tray with aluminum foil. (Note 7). Place a wire rack on it and oil the rack (not in ingredients).
Using a brush, baste both sides of skewers with sauce and place the skewers on the rack. I used 70cm x 26cm/14½” x 10¼” baking tray and I could fit all of the skewers.
Place the baking tray under the oven grill. The distance between the skewers and the grill should be about 5cm/2”.
Cook for 5-6 minutes, then take the tray out and turn the skewers over.
Baste the up side (cooked side) of the skewers and place the tray back under the grill.
Cook for 4-5 minutes, then take the tray out and turn the skewers over again.
Baste the upside (cooked side) of the skewers and place the tray back under the grill.
Cook for a minute or until the chicken and shallots/scallions start getting charred a bit.
If required, turn the skewers once more to get the other side get charred.
Remove the skewers from the tray and place them onto a plate. Serve immediately.
1. I used thin round 15cm (6”) bamboo skewers. But you could use a bit longer skewers or flat skewers. I find that thin round skewers are the easiest to thread the chicken pieces.
Soaking the bamboo skewers is very important. It prevents the skewers from getting burnt too quickly when grilled.
Number of skewers required varies depending on how many pieces of chicken and shallots/scallions you have. In my case, I had 49 chicken pieces and 24 shallots/scallion pieces. Because I made 4 chicken pieces with 3 shallots/scallions, I ended up with 8 negima (chicken and shallots/scallions) and 3 momo (chicken thigh) skewers. You can do any combination.
2. I bought thigh fillets which did not have skin on this time. But I sometimes use thigh with skin on which is equally delicious. You could also use chicken breast instead of thigh. Or a mixture.
3. Depending on the size of the pot, the time taken to reduce the sauce varies.
4. If shallots/scallions are left over, you could make a shallots/scallion skewer!
5. Depending on the griller/BBQ, you may need to adjust the distance/spacing as the temperature of the heat varies. The heat should be medium high to high.
6. I basted twice on each side but you can turn them over once more with another coating of sauce if you prefer a stronger flavour.
7. If you don’t line the baking tray with aluminum foil, the sauce will drop directly onto the tray and get burnt badly due to sugar in the sauce. Line it so that you don't have to clean the mess later.
8. Nutrition information is for 1 skewer assuming 12 skewers were made with equal distribution of ingredients.