As summer steadily creeps over the Nippon horizon, the air begins to swim with a welcome treat. Take an evening stroll down one of the many foodie side streets here in Japan and your nose will be greeted by a sumptuous blend of searing meat, spices and charcoal, the sweet, aromatic smoke spilling out from restaurant chimneys. It could be any number of eateries generating this fragrance, as Izakayas, a kind of Japanese pub, often dabble in several styles of cooking. Ah, but hold on to that sweet scent, run if you have to, and at the end of the line you’ll find that time and time again it is the yakiniku joint that rules the night.
Yakiniku, basically translated as “grilled meat”, is a popular method of barbecuing beef, pork, chicken and vegetables in a communal setting. For a time, eating meat was not so prevalent in Japan due to Buddhist influences, but as the doors of international trade opened up, so did the grills. Yakiniku, originally of Korean origin, found a foothold in the Japanese markets from this time on. The word came to encapsulate both northern and southern methods of Korean grilling and was used to calm tensions between immigrants from those two regions living in Japan during the Korean war.
Though there is some debate concerning the details of its origins, after living in Korea and Japan I can safely say that both yakiniku styles have found their own unique flavor. Still, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it, we westerners say, and so the basics remain the same. Customers often sit around a grill built into the table where pre-prepared food items are presented, ready to cook. This style may sound familiar to Americans, what with the many so-called “Japanese style” steakhouses like Benihana’s promising a flavorful trip to the land of the rising sun, but Yakiniku is different. The only show to behold is your own grilling skills as customers cook their own food. Rare, medium, well done, it’s entirely up to you and while this may come off as lazy on the part of the owners of the establishment, eventually it becomes quite fulfilling. After the meat is cooked to your liking, dip it in one of the many sauces. Tare is an icon of Yakiniku dips, a mix of soy sauce, mirin and sugar.
Often times one person will feel the need to showcase their awesome grilling skills, and that’s OK because there is plenty for the others in your party to do, like maintaining a steady flow of delicious ingredients to the table. On the beef side we have galbi (short ribs), rosu (loin slices) and harami (tender meat from the diaphragm). How about some pork? My favorite is tontoro, juicy meat from around the cheek and neck. There are also a selection of offal called horumon that are quite popular including heart, kidney and intestine. Though, admittedly, this style is not my speed, I have taken a liking to beef tongue (tan). Listen, before you dare to judge understand that five years living in a foreign country with a shrinking gut will do that. All of this goes down well with an assortment of colorful vegetables ready to grill, like onions, carrots, lettuce and mushrooms. As you can imagine, portions vanish pretty quickly, keeping the orders coming fast, grill blazing hot and chimney working hard. It’s Ok, because it just means that the next time you’re lost in the city with an empty stomach, all you have to do is follow your nose.