I realized the other day that I never did get around to mentioning that after a couple of guest appearances at Get Cooking Edmonton, I was offered a job. This may come as a bit of a shock, but I teach the Japanese class.
I know, right? Who would have guessed?
In any case, during the last class, one of the clients asked me about yakitori, which was not on the menu, and I told everyone that I would email them a recipe for it in a few days.
Then I forgot all about it. I didn’t give it a second thought until the GCE admin lady forwarded me an email she had received from one of the clients, asking when I was finally going to get off my ass and keep my promises.
Just so we’re clear, I paraphrased that last bit. The email was actually very polite.
Yakitori is not something that my grandmother made for us. I think the first time I ever tried it I was 11 or 12, and my parents had taken me out to a Japanese restaurant. Back then, I was kind of a picky eater, so I examined every menu item carefully in order to find something that I would actually eat. The idea of grilled chicken seemed pretty safe, so I made my choice, and was hooked for life.
The word yakitori literally means “grilled bird”, but it can also include beef, pork, duck, and vegetables. Basically, if you can fit it on a skewer, it’s yakitori. That being said, chicken is the primary ingredient. And in Japan, that means ALL of the chicken – breasts, thighs, legs, liver, gizzard, the neck, heart, and even the skin.
Maybe it’s my North American upbringing, but I find the thought of eating some of those bits kind of repulsive. Let’s just stick with the breasts and thighs, mmkay?
The “trick” to cooking yakitori is grilling the chicken partially, coating it with tare (it means “sauce”), and then grilling the coated chicken. So, you’re grilling both the chicken and the sauce, giving it a double carmelization and infusing it with a ton of umami.
Like nearly everything in Japanese cuisine, yakitori is not difficult to make at home; all you need are a few basic staples, and a way to actually cook the dish. In Japan,yakitori is cooked on a special grill called a konro, a rectangular shaped, fireproof ceramic box, which uses (naturally) a special type of charcoal called binchotan, which is made from the branches of the Japanese oak.
Binchotan is costly to produce, as only oak trees of a certain age can be harvested, and the oak is then fired in an earthen kiln for about a week.
The konro is long, narrow, and deep, which makes it easy to pile in the binchotan, concentrate the heat, and suspend the skewers over the coals without roasting the flesh from your hands in the process. The konro has a removable wire grid, so the skewers can be placed directly on the grid, or it can be removed and the skewers suspended directly over the coals.
While it would be nice to cook yakitori in the traditional manner, it is not necessary to own a konro. If you have a barbecue, you’re good to go. If you want to simulate the konro technique, you can approximate it with a few bricks and some heavy duty aluminum foil.
If you don’t want to bother with that, simply measure a sheet of aluminum foil to match the length of your grill and fold it in half. Place the folded sheet on one side of the grate, and place the skewers on the grate so the exposed ends are resting on the aluminum foil, and the meat ends are over the fire. The foil will prevent the skewers from burning.
It goes without saying, but brush and oil the grate before starting the grill, otherwise the meat may stick to it.
Yakitori Tare (sauce)
Bones from 1 chicken (carcass & leg bones, coarsely chopped; bit of meat and skin are fine)
2 cups mirin
2 cups shoyu
1 cup sake
1 cup water
2 tbsp packed brown sugar
Preheat an oven broiler. Arrange the chicken bones in a roasting pan and place under the heat. Broil until the bones are browned, about 5 minutes on each side, using tongs to turn the bones over.
Transfer the bones to a large stockpot. Add the mirin, shoyu, sake, water, and brown sugar. Bring to a boil over high heat. Decrease the heat to low and simmer, uncovered, until the liquid is reduced by half and becomes nice & glossy (at least 1 hour). Strain to remove the bones and any optional ingredients (see note) and discard. Let the liquid come to room temperature and use.
If you don’t have a chicken carcass handy, substitute 1 cup of chicken broth (it’s perfectly fine to use the store bought stuff – use the low sodium variety) for the cup of water, and simmer as directed above.
Note: Add one or more to the stockpot with the other ingredients: 3 to 5 crushed garlic cloves, 1 bunch green onions, 1 to 2 oz fresh ginger, thickly sliced; 1 to 2 tsp freshly ground pepper or ichimi togarashi.
1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs
16 large, thick green onions(scallions), trimmed
1/2 cup yakitori tare
Soak the bamboo skewers overnight in water.
Cut the chicken into 1/2 inch wide slices. Cut the onions into 1 inch long sticks.
Preheat the grill to medium-hot heat.
Fold the chicken slices in half and thread on to the skewers, alternating chicken, onion, chicken, etc until the skewer is full. Press down on the completed skewer with the heel of your hand to compress the ingredients. Lightly sprinkle both sides of the ingredients with the salt.
Place the sauce in a small bowl with a pastry or barbecue brush.
Place the skewers onto the grill (or bricks, if using), and turn every 1 minute or so as they brown. Once the meat is lightly browned and you can see it sizzling, brush the sauce on top. Grill for about 2 minutes more, turning about every 30 seconds and brushing more sauce on each time. Transfer the chicken to a platter and drip more sauce on top, and serve immediately.
Part of my duties at Get Cooking include helping to update the company blog, so if you’re interested in reading more of my pointless babbling, you can find it here.