A friend recently asked if I had any recommendations for yakitori spots in Tokyo… I mean, how long is a piece of string? Alongside sushi and ramen (which he also asked about and I think is even more of a minefield), yakitori is probably one of the most recognisable Japanese foods. ‘Yakitori’ which translates to ‘grilled chicken’ might just be meat on a stick, but in Japan where everything has a certain ceremony to it, this is meticulously prepared meat on a stick. Every piece of bite-sized chicken, which could be anything from breast, liver or even skin, is carefully selected and threaded onto a skewer before being seasoned with either shio (salt) or a tare made from a base of soy sauce and other flavourings.
During our time in Japan, we chewed through a lot of yakitori. You’ll find some yakitori on most izakaya menus as they pair so perfectly with a cold beer, but we did also visit a few yakitori-ya where they were even more extensive and creative in their use of the whole bird. As offal lovers, we were in heaven… livers and hearts were particular favourites. I think the best way to do a yakitori meal is to park yourself up at the bar, order a beer and get a steady stream of sticks until you’re full. Either let the chef choose (omakase) or get a mixed plate (moriwase) and then repeat the ones you particularly enjoyed!
I knew I would never be able to mimic that distinct yakitori-ya atmosphere laced with smoke and aromas, but I wanted to attempt two of the more simple yakitori we were ordering on a regular basis. The first is negima, a classic combination of chicken thigh and spring onion, and the second is tsukune which is sort of like a chicken kofta. We almost always had our yakitori with tare as I preferred the depth of flavour from the salty, slightly sweet sauce so that’s what I’ve tried to recreate here. The yakitori are pretty easy to put together and can be done in advance. The slightly onerous part is the cooking, but even that only requires you to take it out of the oven a couple of times to turn and brush the skewers with sauce…
Negima and Tsukune Yakitori – Recipe
Serves 2 as mains or 4 as starters (8 skewers)
For the skewers:
- 4 large boneless, skinless chicken thighs (or approximately 300-350g total chicken)
- 3 spring onions, remove the roots and slice into 2cm long pieces
- 1 tablespoon ginger, finely grated
- 1 garlic clove, finely grated
- 1 tablespoon light soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon sesame oil
- 1 teaspoon cornflour
- Pinch of salt and pepper
- 8 bamboo skewers, soaked in water
For the sauce
- 2 tablespoons mirin
- 2 tablespoons light soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon oyster sauce
- 1 teaspoon dark soy sauce
- 2 teaspoons sugar (I prefer brown sugar but white is fine too)
- 1 clove garlic, finely grated
Preparing the negima:
Take 2 chicken thighs and cut into 12 even pieces, roughly 2-3cm.
From the sliced spring onions, select 12 pieces of the white/light green parts.
Thread 3 pieces of chicken and spring onion onto each skewer, alternating between the two.
Set aside in the fridge until ready for cooking.
Preparing the tsukune:
Take 2 chicken thighs and roughly chop into large chunks.
Place the chicken, remaining spring onions, ginger, garlic, light soy sauce, sesame oil, salt, pepper, and cornflour in a food processor and blend until it is the consistency of mince. (You can also use chicken mince – in which case, you should very finely chop the spring onions before adding to the chicken mince along with everything else)
Split the mixture into 4 portions and shape into oval-shaped patties around the bamboo skewer.
Place these on a tray or container, cover and leave to rest in the fridge for at least 30 minutes so the meat firms up. Leave in the fridge until you are ready to cook.
Cooking the negima and tsukune yakitori:
Preheat your oven to 200c fan bake.
Prepare the sauce by combining the light soy sauce, mirin, oyster sauce, dark soy sauce, sugar, and garlic in a small bowl.
Line a large tray with baking paper (or a silicone mat like mine) and brush with a bit of oil. Evenly space the yakitori on the tray, and bake for 5 minutes in the middle of the oven.
After 5 minutes, take the yakitori out of the oven, carefully turn them over (mind your fingers as the sticks will be hot) and brush all over with the sauce, then return to the oven for another 5 minutes.
Repeat this process twice more – by the end of this stage, your chicken should have been in the oven for a total of 20 minutes and be completely cooked. If you have any sauce leftover, feel free to brush the yakitori with the remaining sauce once more before putting them back in the oven for another 2 minutes.
Once you’ve finished cooking the yakitori, they should be well glazed with the sauce and look really glossy and sticky. Serve immediately – as a starter we serve one of each yakitori with a salad dressed in our own version of a Japanese-inspired sesame dressing, but as a main we serve two of each with the salad and some extra sushi rice on the side!
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