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 Spanish tapas, yakitori is also sold and served as a portable food. Yakitori-ya are small specialty shops that sell yakitori and not much else. Then, there are the stalls and carts called yatai which sell yakitori as 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.
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 the ingredients, dump them in a pan and you let the mixture boil gently until reduced by half.
But if you think that basting skewered chicken with tare sauce is the only way to cook yakitori, know that there is such a thing as shio yakitori too where the chicken is sprinkled with salt, and nothing more, during grilling.
So, yakitori is just grill and baste?
Well, yes, although there are a few tricks to make sure that you get the best texture and flavor.
First, it is important to lightly brown the chicken on the grill first before you start brushing the meat with tare. If you skip this step, the chicken will have the mouth feel of boiled meat. That’s bad yakitori.
Second, you can’t take a short cut by just mixing the tare ingredients and brushing the mixture directly on the meat. For two reasons.
One. 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. Two. 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, there. While cooking yakitori may sound simple, it is actually deceptively simple. But is it a doable home cooking project? Sure, it is!
Easy Yakitori With Tare Sauce
For the tare sauce
For the skewers
- 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.