An American’s Crash Course on Yakitori Culture

It sometimes surprises Americans to learn that the Japanese have their own distinctive version of fast food. Yakitori is a skewer with various meats stacked on top of each other along with the diner’s vegetables of choice. However, the Japanese weren’t always free to eat and prepare meat as they wished. Religious restrictions banned the preparation and consumption of most meat except for chicken.

Unfortunately, the grilling of chicken was considered distasteful and not something that citizens wanted to be caught doing. This caused them to place chicken on a skewer and grill it over charcoal. The smell of sweet tare sauce and smoke was intended to cover the smell of cooking chicken.

Eventually, the ban was lifted, and yakitori became an accepted part of Japanese culture by the middle of the 20th century. The popularity spread to Western countries where people are more likely to refer to meat on a stick as a kabob.

Why the Japanese Love Their Yakitori

Yakitori is a cheap, convenient food that takes little space or ingredients to prepare. People can gather ingredients on the spot or they can select the meats and vegetables to go on the sticks up to 24 hours in advance. When served at a backyard gathering, hosts don’t need to concern themselves with providing silverware since guests only need to hold and eat from the stick. Depending on how many yakitori the host chooses to serve, they can act as an appetizer or the main dish.

To make yakitori even more convenient, guests can assemble their own sticks with meat and vegetables that a host had laid out on a table. It’s possible to cater to several dietary restrictions and preferences, including light or dark meat or a paleo, low carb, or gluten-free diet.

Popular Types of Yakitori in Japan

In modern Japan, yakitori typically bears the name of the part of the chicken used to create it. Here are some of the most popular types:

  • Momo: The simplest type of yakitori contains only skewered thigh meat from the chicken.
  • Nankotsu: Containing mostly cartilage and little chicken meat, nankotsu is the crunchiest of the yakitori types.
  • Negima: A favorite in Japan, negima consists of pieces of meat from a chicken’s thigh mixed with leek pieces in between each piece of chicken on the skewer.
  • Torikawa: This term means strips of chicken fat grilled to create a crispy and crunchy taste.
  • Tsukune: This type of yakitori requires the preparer to combine spices, egg, vegetables, and mixed chicken into something Westerners would recognize as a meatball. The meatballs then go one on top of the other on the stick.

Creative cooks could literally make hundreds of combinations for yakitori over the course of their career.

Best Places to Find Yakitori in the United States

Most Asian restaurants serve some type of yakitori. Even so, diners should consider going to a yakitori-ya, which is a Japanese term that means the restaurant specializes in yakitori preparation. The reward for going out of the way to find a yakitori-ya is deep, rich flavors with many options for meats, vegetables, and sauces that wouldn’t be available at just any restaurant.

Kelly Tate

Kelly Tate

Kelly is a full-time supermum, caring for two kids and a hardworking husband. A cook, a cleaner, a carer and all round hard worker, striving for the perfect family life (with a few bumps along the way!) Eternally honest and sometimes brutally forward, no topics are off limits with Kelly.
Kelly Tate