It wouldn’t be the first time that I misquoted something, but I believe there’s an ancient proverb out there that goes, “a man who eats meat from a stick can laugh at any storm a comin’ “. No? Well, there should be. After all, there is definitely something carefree, simple, primal even, about yakitori, one of my favorite Japanese fast foods. Yes, it’s true that there are foods like it around the world, the Turkish kabob for instance, carrying that same elemental vibe; a mission to satisfy hunger minus the frills and pretentious pomp. Still, sitting at the dark wooden counter, I find myself quietly mesmerized as the cooks string chicken, beef and pork on small sticks before carefully rotating them over and over above a crackling fire. You can’t help but notice a glimmer of the same elegance that pervades much of Japan’s culture seeping into the making of this dish like the juices onto red-hot coals.
What Yakitori actually means, “grilled chicken”, has gradually become a general term for various other meats and vegetables prepared in this way. Said to have originated in Nagano prefecture during the Edo period, it was served as a dinner course to a certain Lord of Komoro Castle. With the later Meiji period of the 19th-20th century, eating of certain meats previously deemed taboo by Buddhist Japan were now becoming more popular with the many nations entering the country. However, the best parts were reserved for the royal and wealthy. The undesirables; hearts, tendons, even skin, made their way to the commoners on a stick in the markets.
So imagine, you’re taking a night-time stroll somewhere in Nippon, when a sweet aroma of cooking meat draws your attention to a narrow side street. You follow the scent to Yakitori-ya, ya meaning “shop”, and you have a seat, wiping your face and hands with the hot towel given to you. You’re given a menu listing dozens of possibilities in Japanese, so if you can’t read it, you should ask for English. Some places may have it. Some of your options may be; momo– chicken thigh, negima– chicken and spring onion, tsukune-chicken meatballs, (tori)kawa-grilled, crispy chicken skin and nankotsu-chicken cartilage, among many others. There are also non poultry alternatives like butabara-pork belly (uncured bacon), gyutan-beef tongue and ikada-Japanese scallion. After creating your perfect treat on a stick, you’ll have your choice of two flavors; shio (salt) or tare (mixture that includes soy sauce and sugar). Which is best depends on your individual tastes and the meats involved.
If your home happens to be beyond Japan’s borders, fret not. As Japanese cuisine grows in the public eye, Yakitori is also finding its way to restaurants, bars and cozy side streets in cosmopolitan cities around the world. So, maybe now is the time to decide which delectable one is right for you.