I was at a hotel in the Little Tokyo neighborhood of Los Angeles. Like usual, I was looking for something interesting to eat. A guide recommended Kokekokko, a yakitori joint right around the corner from my hotel. A restaurant that serves nothing but grilled chicken? I had to try it out.
The meal was a revelation. Skewer after skewer of chicken sat over the charcoal on a long, thin grill, just wide enough for the bamboo skewers to rest on its edges. The chefs would turn the chicken every now and again while chatting with the customers, occasionally lifting a skewer and and snipping off any burnt edges with a pair of kitchen scissors. Once the chicken was cooked to their liking, they would dip it in a big crock of tare sauce and serve it.
*Tare sauce, or yakitori tare, is a combination of soy sauce, mirin, and sake, and the juices of all the grilled chicken dipped in it over the years. Yes, years - yakitori restaurants use the same batch for years, topping it off whenever it runs low, so the flavor of the chicken keeps building.
When I say it was "all chicken", that doesn't cover the variety in the meal. Each skewer held a specific cut. We started with skewers of chicken thigh, skewers of chicken breast, and skewers of each with green onions added. Then we moved to the more intriguing part of the menu. All chicken meant all of the chicken. There were skewers of chicken livers, gizzards, hearts, and my favorite, chicken skin. The finale was hard-boiled quail eggs on the skewer, grilled like the chicken and dipped in the wonderful sauce.
I came home determined to duplicate that meal. It seemed so simple - grill chicken on a skewer, dip it in the sauce, and serve. My first few attempts were dry, bland and under seasoned. Where was the combination of chicken flavor and tare sauce that I loved so much? I set the idea aside, determined to try again later.
This spring, The Japanese Grill was released. Aha! A guide on the road to yakitori; exactly what I needed. They explained where I went wrong:
- Season the chicken with a little salt before grilling. I was grilling plain chicken, counting on the tare sauce to season it. A little salt helps bring out the flavor of the chicken.
- Double-dip with the tare sauce. I missed this at the restaraunt, but the skewers were dipped, put back on the grill to cook the sauce into a glaze, then dipped again and served.
- Use chicken thighs. They have more flavor and don't overcook as easily as chicken breasts.
*You'd think that the guy who keeps preaching the power of the dark side of chicken would have figured this one out himself, don't you?
Now I have what I was searching for - yakitori that takes me back to the smoky little restaurant in Little Tokyo.
*My next project? To make yakitori using an entire chicken from my poultry CSA at Brunty Farms.
Recipe: Yakitori Chicken Thighs (Momo) and Thighs with Green Onions (Negima)
Adapted From: Tadashi Ono, Harris Salat The Japanese Grill
Cook time: 8 minutes
- Grill (I use a Weber Summit Here is the current version of my grill.)
- Bamboo skewers, soaked in water for at least 1 hour (6 inch skewers are the perfect size, but use whatever you can find.)
- Strips of aluminum foil (to protect the uncovered ends of the bamboo skewers)
- 1 ½ pounds chicken thighs
- 4 scallions (optional)
- 1 teaspoon Kosher salt
Yakitori Tare sauce:
- ½ cup soy sauce
- ½ cup mirin (Japanese sweetened rice wine)
- ¼ cup sake (Japanese brewed rice wine)
- ¼ cup chicken broth (optional, preferably homemade)
- 1 clove garlic, smashed
- 1 thin slice ginger, smashed
1. Chicken Thigh (Momo): Cut the chicken thighs crosswise into ½" slices. Fold each slice in half, then skewer. (When folded in half, the pieces should be about 1 inch across). Repeat until all but two inches of the skewer are covered. (For six inch skewers, 5 to 6 pieces of chicken will cover 4 inches of the skewer, leaving 2 inches uncovered.)
1a. Chicken and Scallions (Negima): Trim the scallions, then cut the white and light green parts crosswise into 1 inch pieces. Start each skewer with a piece of scallion, then add two pieces of folded chicken, then another scallion, two more pieces of chicken, and a last scallion. That should cover 4 inches of skewer (For skewers longer than six inches, keep repeating the pattern, ending with a piece of scallion.)
Once all the chicken is skewered, salt lightly with the kosher salt.
2. Prepare the grill: Set the grill up cooking on direct medium-high heat. For my Weber Summit, I turn all burners to high and preheat the grill for ten to fifteen minutes. Then I brush the grill clean, turn the burners down to medium-high, and put two strips of aluminum foil down to protect the skewers while the chicken cooks. (See the pictures below.)
3. Prepare the Tare sauce: While the grill is preheating, Bring the tare ingredients to a boil, then simmer, stirring often, until reduced by half, about ten minutes. (If you have a side burner on your grill, this is the perfect use for it.)
4. Cook the chicken: Put the skewers on the grill over direct medium-high heat, with the bamboo handles protected by the aluminum foil. Cook for two minutes, then flip the skewers. Cook for another two minutes. Brush the skewers with the tare sauce, flip again, and cook for 1 minute. Brush with sauce again, flip, and cook for one more minute. Remove the skewers from the grill to a platter, and brush one last time with the sauce. Serve.
*Yes, you can use boneless, skinless chicken breasts for this. They'll taste great. But...chicken thigh is the favorite type of yakitori in Japan for a reason, so if you can find boneless, skinless chicken thighs, give it a try.
*If you check the pictures carefully, you can see chicken liver yakitori cooking in the background. Cook them just like the chicken thighs, but be careful when skewering. Chicken liver is much more fragile than regular chicken meat.
*You want more options? I highly recommend The Japanese Grill - they have more yakitori recipes than you can shake a stick* at.
*Preferably a six inch bamboo skewer.
*Extra scallions? Make an all-scallion skewer
What do you think? Questions? Other ideas? Leave them in the comments section below.
Yakitori Shitake Mushrooms [Coming Thursday]
Grilled Boneless Skinless Chicken Breasts, Quick Brinerated
Rotisserie Teriyaki Chicken
Instant Pot Japanese Curry
Tadashi Ono, Harris Salat The Japanese Grill
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