Yakitori: The Zen of Grilled Chicken

Simplicity of preparation and beautiful presentation are hallmarks of Japanese cookery. A perfectly composed meal should be a gustatory poem or a painting meant to be appreciated with all five senses, instead of just one or two.

The sense of smell is engaged by the delicious odors of the cleanly prepared ingredients, carefully enhanced by a minimum of extraneous flavors. The sense of sight is rewarded with the use of contrasting colors within the ingredients and the serving pieces themselves. Hearing is delighted by the sounds of cookery in process: the sizzle of of a bit of meat touching a hot grill or the whisper of simmering stock both bring joy to the ear of an appreciative diner. The sense of touch is never forgotten by the careful Japanese cook; every dish or meal should have a contrast in texture present in some form.

Taste, of course, is paramount, and the Japanese philosophy of the freshest ingredients cooked or presented simply shows the seminal essence of kitchen Zen. Foods should taste naturally good, with minimal enhancements utilized, not to hide the flavor of the main ingredient, but rather to bring forth the fullness of its true nature.

Yakitori, chicken bits threaded on skewers and grilled, is a dish which illustrates the principles of Japanese cookery perfectly. Small cubes of chicken meat are marinated in a sauce that contains sake, mirin, sugar of some derivation, soy sauce and sometimes chicken broth, then threaded on soaked bamboo skewers with or without vegetables. Then, they are grilled over high heat and basted with the sauce, until the outside is golden brown marked with charred strips where the hot grill seared the chicken meat. The interior should be just barely done in order to preserve the moistness of the meat and to provide a contrast between the juicy, tender meat in the center and the sweet, toothsome gold and black outer crust.

Overjoyed to find that Canaan Farms Chicken once more had fresh chicken breasts for sale at the Farmer’s Market, I decided to make yakitori to go with the edamame.

So I picked up some scallions and after finding some leftover portobella slices in the refrigerator, decided to add mushrooms to the skewers.

Although it is traditional to use bamboo for skewering the meat, I went ahead and used the metal skewers I had instead. For one thing, you have to soak bamboo skewers, and I had no intention of doing that; for another thing, one generally discards of bamboo skewers after using them once, a practice which I find to be utterly wasteful.

Having made and eaten yakitori made with the bamboo skewers before, when I compared them to the ones put on the metal skewers, I found no discernable difference between the two types of skewers in practice. I guess that since yakitori started out primarily as a street stall food, eaten by patrons on the run, it made sense to use bamboo skewers for portability and ease of disposal; having a patron walk away with a skewer one was intending to throw out is not tragic.

Having someone walk off with your metal skewer, on the other hand, is not only expensive, but is an invitation to any number of possible accidental blood-spillings.

However, unless one intends to open up a yakitori stand on the corner, I suggest you use metal skewers, if you have them. If you don’t, but you grill a lot, go out and get some. They last forever, and in a pinch, the two and a half foot-long ones I have with wooden handles can be used as fencing foils.

Chicken Yakitori

Sauce Ingredients:

1 1/2 cup sake
1/2 cup mirin
1/4 cup honey (I used local wildflower honey sublty flavored with pure lemon oil)
2 cups dark Japanese soy sauce
1 tablespoon tamari soy sauce
1/8 cup chicken broth

Further Ingredients:

1 whole chicken breast, boned, skinned and cut into 1″ cubes
1 bunch scallions, washed, trimmed and cut into 1″ lengths
1 large portobella mushroom, stem removed and cut into 1/2″ thick slices, each slice cut into half lengthwise
1 teaspoon sesame oil

Method:

In a saucepan, mix together sauce ingredients over medium heat. Bring to a boil, and turn down to a simmer–cook until mixture reduces by about 1/4. Cool to about room temperature, and add chicken, scallions and mushrooms.

Allow to marinate at least three hours or so. Overnight would probably be even better.

Thread chicken and vegetables, alternating, on skewers of choice; if you use bamboo skewers, be certain to soak them in water to cover for at least three hours, preferably overnight. Reserve marinade.

Bring marinade back to a boil and allow to boil vigorously for about two minutes, in order to kill any bacteria that may have been introduced to the mixture by the chicken.

Grill skewers over high heat, basting with boiled marinade and turning frequently, until chicken has firmed up and is streaked with golden brown and black, and the mushrooms and scallions have blackened considerably.

Drizzle with sesame oil.

Serve immediately, on the skewers or off.

Note:

Leftovers can be saved and utilized in cold dishes like grilled chicken salads or Cold Hunan Spicy Noodles.

If you like dark meat, boned and skinned chicken thighs and legs can be cut into chunks and used to great effect in this recipe, as these pieces are naturally more juicy than breast meat.

Be certain that you do not overcook the chicken pieces. Check them for firm texture (when you poke it with a finger, the surface “springs back”) often. If they are the tiniest bit soft, but golden and black on the outside, take them off anyway–they will continue cooking off heat in their own retained heat for several minutes, and if you wait until they are perfectly firm, they will likely overcook.

4 Comments

RSS feed for comments on this post.

  1. what a great article and a different recipe

    Comment by John — September 29, 2007 #

  2. fantastic artical ..WOW…

    Comment by JITU PHUKAN — April 7, 2008 #

  3. Hi _ I’m a bit confused about the two different types of soy sauce. What is Japanese dark soy sauce? Is it the same as Thai “thick” soy sauce? Is it sweetened or salty? I went to the Asian market near me and there was nothing that looked like japanese dark.
    Thanks!

    Comment by Christine — August 4, 2009 #

  4. Just use regular Japanese soy sauce in addition to the tamari. Thick soy sauce will not work–it will make it too sweet.

    Comment by Barbara — August 4, 2009 #

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Yakitori: The Zen of Grilled Chicken

Simplicity of preparation and beautiful presentation are hallmarks of Japanese cookery. A perfectly composed meal should be a gustatory poem or a painting meant to be appreciated with all five senses, instead of just one or two.

The sense of smell is engaged by the delicious odors of the cleanly prepared ingredients, carefully enhanced by a minimum of extraneous flavors. The sense of sight is rewarded with the use of contrasting colors within the ingredients and the serving pieces themselves. Hearing is delighted by the sounds of cookery in process: the sizzle of of a bit of meat touching a hot grill or the whisper of simmering stock both bring joy to the ear of an appreciative diner. The sense of touch is never forgotten by the careful Japanese cook; every dish or meal should have a contrast in texture present in some form.

Taste, of course, is paramount, and the Japanese philosophy of the freshest ingredients cooked or presented simply shows the seminal essence of kitchen Zen. Foods should taste naturally good, with minimal enhancements utilized, not to hide the flavor of the main ingredient, but rather to bring forth the fullness of its true nature.

Yakitori, chicken bits threaded on skewers and grilled, is a dish which illustrates the principles of Japanese cookery perfectly. Small cubes of chicken meat are marinated in a sauce that contains sake, mirin, sugar of some derivation, soy sauce and sometimes chicken broth, then threaded on soaked bamboo skewers with or without vegetables. Then, they are grilled over high heat and basted with the sauce, until the outside is golden brown marked with charred strips where the hot grill seared the chicken meat. The interior should be just barely done in order to preserve the moistness of the meat and to provide a contrast between the juicy, tender meat in the center and the sweet, toothsome gold and black outer crust.

Overjoyed to find that Canaan Farms Chicken once more had fresh chicken breasts for sale at the Farmer’s Market, I decided to make yakitori to go with the edamame.

So I picked up some scallions and after finding some leftover portobella slices in the refrigerator, decided to add mushrooms to the skewers.

Although it is traditional to use bamboo for skewering the meat, I went ahead and used the metal skewers I had instead. For one thing, you have to soak bamboo skewers, and I had no intention of doing that; for another thing, one generally discards of bamboo skewers after using them once, a practice which I find to be utterly wasteful.

Having made and eaten yakitori made with the bamboo skewers before, when I compared them to the ones put on the metal skewers, I found no discernable difference between the two types of skewers in practice. I guess that since yakitori started out primarily as a street stall food, eaten by patrons on the run, it made sense to use bamboo skewers for portability and ease of disposal; having a patron walk away with a skewer one was intending to throw out is not tragic.

Having someone walk off with your metal skewer, on the other hand, is not only expensive, but is an invitation to any number of possible accidental blood-spillings.

However, unless one intends to open up a yakitori stand on the corner, I suggest you use metal skewers, if you have them. If you don’t, but you grill a lot, go out and get some. They last forever, and in a pinch, the two and a half foot-long ones I have with wooden handles can be used as fencing foils.

Chicken Yakitori

Sauce Ingredients:

1 1/2 cup sake
1/2 cup mirin
1/4 cup honey (I used local wildflower honey sublty flavored with pure lemon oil)
2 cups dark Japanese soy sauce
1 tablespoon tamari soy sauce
1/8 cup chicken broth

Further Ingredients:

1 whole chicken breast, boned, skinned and cut into 1″ cubes
1 bunch scallions, washed, trimmed and cut into 1″ lengths
1 large portobella mushroom, stem removed and cut into 1/2″ thick slices, each slice cut into half lengthwise
1 teaspoon sesame oil

Method:

In a saucepan, mix together sauce ingredients over medium heat. Bring to a boil, and turn down to a simmer–cook until mixture reduces by about 1/4. Cool to about room temperature, and add chicken, scallions and mushrooms.

Allow to marinate at least three hours or so. Overnight would probably be even better.

Thread chicken and vegetables, alternating, on skewers of choice; if you use bamboo skewers, be certain to soak them in water to cover for at least three hours, preferably overnight. Reserve marinade.

Bring marinade back to a boil and allow to boil vigorously for about two minutes, in order to kill any bacteria that may have been introduced to the mixture by the chicken.

Grill skewers over high heat, basting with boiled marinade and turning frequently, until chicken has firmed up and is streaked with golden brown and black, and the mushrooms and scallions have blackened considerably.

Drizzle with sesame oil.

Serve immediately, on the skewers or off.

Note:

Leftovers can be saved and utilized in cold dishes like grilled chicken salads or Cold Hunan Spicy Noodles.

If you like dark meat, boned and skinned chicken thighs and legs can be cut into chunks and used to great effect in this recipe, as these pieces are naturally more juicy than breast meat.

Be certain that you do not overcook the chicken pieces. Check them for firm texture (when you poke it with a finger, the surface “springs back”) often. If they are the tiniest bit soft, but golden and black on the outside, take them off anyway–they will continue cooking off heat in their own retained heat for several minutes, and if you wait until they are perfectly firm, they will likely overcook.

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