Yakitori: Grilling Japanese Style

A majority of Americans celebrate our nation's day of independence with one of America's favorite pastimes: grilling. Most, however, do not realize that cooking over an open fire was integral to traditional Japanese life long before our country's foundation. Yakimono, literally meaning "grilled things,” is one of the focal points of Japanese cooking and one of the primary courses that comprise the multi-course kaiseki meal. Chicken remains the principal ingredient for yakitori, in fact, most old-school restaurants serve nothing else. But grilling isn't just for haute dining, the Japanese have traditionally cooked without an oven, relying instead on fire to caramelize and roast foods.

Most Japanese households prepared their meals on an irori, a square-shaped open fireplace that was built into the floor. These can still be found in houses with traditional hearths in the countryside, but in big cities like Tokyo, no one grills at home due to a lack of outdoor space for cooking.  Thus the grilling is left to professionals at yakitori restaurants, who specialize in grilled, skewered foods.

While you can achieve a reasonable facsimile of yakitori-style grilling on an American grill, a traditional Yakatori grill is small enough to use on the deck of an apartment or condo, is inexpensive to purchase, and can be used for small or large meals. Dom even commented recently that our newly purchased version will come in handy for cooking for two when the guys have other plans.

The maiden voyage of our newly-purchased Yakitori grill would involve skewered chicken thighs glazed with yakitori sauce. Surprisingly, it took much longer for the charcoal to get hot than a regular Weber grill, but when it did – Yowza! It was incredibly hot and stayed hot far longer than that same Weber grill.

4 boneless (about 1 ½ lbs.) chicken legs and thighs; skinned, boned, and sliced
½ cup Yakitori Sauce

Cut the chicken with the grain into ½-inch-wide slices. Prepare the skewers by folding each slice in half (or thirds depending on length) and skewering. Make sure that the folded sides of the chicken slices are aligned, for aesthetic reasons. As you work, turn the skewer in a screwing motion to make it easier to pierce the meat.

Each skewer should hold about 5 chicken slices, covering about 4 inches of length of skewer. Based on our experience, we would highly recommend using flat bamboo skewers as opposed to the more common round variety. With the uneven weight of the skewered chicken, the round sticks tend to roll rather than stay in one place. When the skewers are ready, gently press down on each one with the heel of your hand to compact the meat and lightly season all sides with salt.

Preheat the grill to medium-hot. Line up the skewers in a row over the hot coals. Turn the skewers every minute or so as they brown. Use tongs to turn the skewers; be careful not to burn the chicken. Switch the skewers around if you notice some skewers browning faster than others. Shifting skewers cooking over hot spots to spots that are less hot will help ensure the chicken cooks evenly. The chicken will take about 8 minutes in total to grill.

So you may have noticed that we haven’t coated the chicken with the yakitori sauce yet. That is because the secret to the perfect yakitori is partially grilling the chicken before coating it with the sauce. In this way, you grill the chicken and then the sauce which produces a double-caramelized charred crust.

So when the chicken is lightly browned and seared, after about 6 minutes of cooking, brush the yakitori sauce on top. Continue grilling skewers for about 2 minutes more, turning about every 30 seconds, and brushing on more sauce as needed. The chicken should turn a rich auburn brown. Transfer the skewers to a platter, and drizzle more sauce on top, and serve immediately.