Years ago my wife was invited to deliver a scientific paper at a conference in Japan. I came along and registered for the “wives” tours.
Tokyo was a constant stream of startling experiences, especially food experiences. Each night before bed we’d stroll down to the street corner where vending machines offered large cans of beer and plastic bags of dried whole guppies marinated in rich soy ginger sauce.
One evening we went to a baseball game to watch the Ham Fighters play the Carp. Go ahead, let your mind wrap around that death match. Smoke cured pig rumps dueling it out with bottom sucking fish.
At the game, the first vendor to pass us had an icebox strapped around his neck. I held up two fingers and got two ice cold beers. The second vendor had a steaming box strapped around his neck. I held up two fingers and, instead of two plump hot dogs, I got two bamboo skewers of hot grilled meat. One had impaled on it bite sized chicken livers and the other had squid, both shiny with a dark chestnut-colored sauce. He also had eel on a stick. No ham or carp. The salty bites were perfect with beer.
I later learned it was called yakitori, and that Yakitori-ya, small storefront restaurants with long narrow charcoal grills are numerous in Japan. They are crowded after work as “salary men” stop in for a snack, a beer or sake, and let off steam. Turns out that yakitori is the snack food of Japan.
Japanese yakitori is like Indonesian satay, meat on a stick, only the flavor is vastly different. I once asked a waitress if she could tell me what was in the sauce. My question was lost in translation, like the great Bill Murray movie, because she replied “Happy Mouth.” So I took lots of notes on the taste of tare sauce and when I got home I set about reverse engineering it.
It is like a thick rich teriyaki sauce, a soy based glaze laced with ginger and garlic. It varies a bit from restaurant to restaurant but the core flavors remain the same. It’s great on salmon, chicken, turkey (that’s grilled turkey breast in the photo above), chunks of pork, many veggies, and especially onions. Yakitori-ya commonly serve chicken bites, gizzards, heart, livers, and tail. You can also find squid, eel, tofu, pork belly, beef tongue, mushrooms, and green onions.
First grill the meat, and then paint on the glaze, cook it for a minute or two more but beware: It will burn if you don’t keep turning the skewers. In Japan, a typical hibachi grill can be a trough perhaps 10′ long, 1″ wide, and 10″ deep. Hot coals are in the bottom and the bamboo sticks, which are longer than the width of the grill, rest on the edges. Yakitori chefs look like xylophone players, moving left and right along the grill turning the skewers.
Makes:A bit more than 1 cup, enough for 2 slabs of ribs or 2 small chickens and a whole mess of chicken livers
- ¼ cup sugar
- ¼ cup fresh grated ginger plus all the liquid that comes out when you are grating
- 5 cloves garlic crushed
- ½ cup soy sauce preferably low sodium
- ½ cup sake or dry white wine
- ½ cup orange juice
- 3 tablespoons honey
- 2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
- 1 tablespoon hot pepper sauce more or less to taste
- 1 ½ teaspoons corn starch
- Cook. In a 2 quart non-reactive saucepan, mix all the ingredients except the corn starch and gently simmer on medium-low for about 30 minutes.
- Strain. Strain the sauce through a fine-mesh strainer into another sauce pan. The chunky stuff has given its all for us and it is now time to discard it like old love letters. Gently press the mush that is left in the strainer against the mesh with a ladle or a spoon to get out all those good juices. Taste the sauce and adjust the honey or hot sauce if you wish. Put it back on a burner on medium-low.
- Thicken. Put the cornstarch into a coffee cup and add an ounce or two of cold water. With a fork, whisk it so it is thoroughly dissolved and, before it has a chance to separate, dump it into the sauce. The sauce will get milky, thicken considerably, and when it warms up start burbling like lava. Simmer about 10 to 15 minutes or until it gets like motor oil and clarifies a bit.
- How to use: To replicate the yakitori-ya experience, don’t put meat and veggies on the same skewer because they cook at different rates. Keep everything on the skewer the same and similar in size. To make sure they all turn together and don't spin, use two skewers rather than one.Cook the meat or veggies over direct heat, but not extremely hot. One layer of charcoal or medium heat on a gas grill should do it. Leave the lid open and turn the meat often. When the meat is almost done, paint the sauce on. No more than 2 coats are needed. Watch carefully so that the sugar doesn't burn.If you don't want to do skewers, you can do chicken or turkey parts, salmon filets or steaks, pork chops, or even ribs.