Our first posting of a dish has to be Yakitori. It simply means “grilled bird”. It is skewered small morsels of meat (mostly chicken) or vegetable grilled on a charcoal fire (or any other direct heat sources). Some Yakitori chefs prefer electric far-infrared heating elements for precise temperature control but charcoal is most authentic. Offal are also frequently used such as chicken liver, gizzard, pope’s nose (if you know what this is), testes (did you know chicken has testes), skin, even cartilage and pork intestine etc. The seasoning are usually “Tare (sauce)” or “Shio (salt)”. “Tare” sauce main flavors are soy sauce and sugar (some yakitoti places may have a secret “tare” sauce which is said to have been used for generations. New ingredients are added to the old and the bottom of the “kame” or earthenware vessels where tare is kept may contain mysterious “sludge” imparting the je ne sais qua character to the “Tare” sauce (although this is most likely just a myth) or simply salted (“Shio”). We prefer salt and lemon for most yakitori items.
Although Yakitori-ya or Yakitori restaurant specializes in this one particular type of cuisine and is not a traditional Izakaya, the idea is the same. The classic yakatori-ya is small, shabby (it has to be) smoke filled (both from cigarette and yakitori grilling) noisy places. They are getting increasingly rare in Japan and are being replaced by more sanitized versions including (again) Yakitori chain stores. In any case, our fond memory of Yakitori goes back 25 years in Sapporo where my wife had first tasted Yakitori with turbid sake (“nigori zake”).
Equipment: At home, we use a special Yakitori grill purchased from Korin. Bincho charcoal, which you can purchase from Korin as well, is said to be the best but we use lump hickory charcoal with good results. One can use any direct heat source including gas, charcoal or even electricity. A Weber grill works well but you certainly loose some of the enjoyment of cooking at the table as you eat.
For skewers we use both bamboo and metal. The metal skewers are specifically designed for Yakitori (purchased in one of the stores in Kappabashi district, Asakusa, Tokyo). They are much shorter than regular metal skewers and also flat preventing soft items such as chicken liver from rotating while being turned. You can use two bamboo skewers with the same results. Bamboo skewers, however, need to be pre-soaked to prevent them from burning.
In this picture, taken in our back yard at home, from right to left, we have chicken thigh, pork with onion (this is said to be in a “Muroran” style named after a port town in Hokkaido and eaten with hot mustard), eggplant, shishito (small green Japanese pepper) chicken wings and drumettes. The shishito pepper is usually not hot. However, it is somewhat like playing Russian roulette because some may be unexpectedly “atomic” hot. While this occasionally happens in Japan for some reason it is much more frequent in the United States.