Yakitori – The best bar snack around
by Hannah Green
Yakitori literally means grilled bird in Japanese. It is traditionally made from several bite-sized chunks of chicken meat or offal skewered and grilled or barbequed over an open flame. Think of yakitori as a superior bar snack and you will start to get the idea – it is cheap, delicious, convenient and a great accompaniment to beer.
Yakitori is a very popular dish in Japan. Skewers of succulent chicken dipped in an appetizing sauce, grilled over hot charcoal, and all washed down with a cold beer.
It is not difficult to see the attraction to workers who often grab a couple of sticks from a yakitori stand on their way home.
These small stands can be found across the city, often conveniently located by train stations.
They are certainly not fancy and often provide standing room only. If seating is available it’s often no more than five or six stools pushed up against a counter, or upturned crates to perch on.
However, what they lack in decor they make up for with in smell, as clouds of aromatic smoke waft off the grills to tempt passers by.
Even at kushiyaki, which are yakitori restaurants rather than stands, the emphasis is less on furnishings and more on providing good food and a convivial atmosphere.
Kushiyaki are a popular choice for groups of friends or work colleagues settling in for a leisurely evening of beer or sake drinking, as they eat their way through the vast selection of tasty morsels on offer.
Although strictly speaking the word “yakitori” refers to grilled bird, similarly skewered other foodstuffs are often also served. Mushrooms, asparagus, sweet squash and quails eggs are commonly available, as are pork, beef and seafood. Depending on what you order, the yakitori will be served with salt, lemon juice or tare sauce.
Tare is a sweet sauce generally made up of mirin, sake, soy sauce and sugar and is applied on the skewered meat, which is then grilled. The finished product is served with the tare sauce as a dip. Many kushiyaki also serve other dishes including deep-fried tofu, grilled fish and of course the ubiquitous combination of rice and miso soup.
There is a fantastic kushiyaki near our apartment in Tokyo, which we regularly pop into for a late evening meal or snack. As you part the curtains and slide open the traditional glass door you are greeted with cries of welcome from the staff, greetings from the locals perched at the counter and the smell of hot charcoal.
The clamour of the kitchen combines with the shouts of the servers to create a noisy, bustling and friendly atmosphere. Glass cases filled to the brim with freshly made skewers line the counter, and hundreds of sake bottles hang jangling from the ceiling.
Two benches run parallel to the counter on either side of the door. Regulars propping up the bar and chatting comfortably to the chefs and businessmen with jackets off and ties loosened celebrating the end of another day fill the stools. Once they have all been taken there is barely enough room to squeeze in between to make your way towards the winding wooden stairs at the back of the room. But even on a busy evening there is always space in the tatami rooms or around the roughly hewn wooden tables and benches upstairs.
Raw cabbage with a dipping sauce of spicy miso paste is served with huge glasses of ice cold draft beer as you are left to decipher the menu. If you have trouble reading the kanji, the servers are always happy to make recommendations and offer their opinion.
The restaurant offers a huge array of traditional yakitori – chicken thigh pieces, tender white chicken breast, alternating pieces of chicken thigh and Japanese leek, chicken cartilage, heart, liver and gizzard. But the real treats are the chef’s specials that combine Japanese and western flavours to wonderful effect. Sweet cherry tomatoes wrapped in bacon and served with dollops of mayonnaise and tomato ketchup; grilled mackerel with a squeeze of lemon; cheese and broccoli wrapped in bacon and delicately grilled. Each dish comes with a different sauce – garlic, cheese, spicy miso or traditional tase. The vegetables are cooked to perfection remaining slightly crunchy inside their bacon blankets.
All are delicious, however our firm favourite remains the tonbara shiso maki, succulent pork rolled with perilla leaves and grilled until tender. The aromatic leaves cut through the fatty pork creating a perfect combination of flavours.
We usually order around five skewers each, choosing a selection of meats, vegetables and fish. If we are still hungry at the end of the meal, a bowl of rice and miso soup is a good way to finish.
Japan web magazine’s recommend
- Address： 4-7-1, Koenji-minami, Suginami-ku, Tokyo, Japan
- Phone： 03-3310-9966
- Address： 1-7-6, Ningyoucho, Nihonbashi, Chuo-ku, Tokyo, Japan
- Phone： 03-3639-1710
- 東京都中央区日本橋人形町1-7-6 寿司芳ビル１F