Complete Guide to Yakitori: How and Where to Eat Yakitori in Japan!
Yakitori, or "grilled chicken", is a savory dish made by charcoal grilling bite-sized pieces of chicken on a bamboo skewer. This fun and tasty skewer is a popular snack throughout Japan. If you're feeling a little snacky, you can walk into practically any popular convenience store and find a range of inexpensive yakitori to choose from. You can also find this dish at Japanese bars called izakaya. If you would like to go a little high-end, you can find countless restaurants specializing in yakitori, each of which serve their own personalized version of the dish. The components of yakitori are simple, but the skills of a great chef can make the experience otherworldly. Here is a guide for the various types of yakitori you'll find in Japan, manners for eating yakitori, and some of Japan's top-ranked yakitori restaurants.
Mar 30 2020 (Sep 09 2020)
Types of Yakitori
When it comes to yakitori, wasting food is frowned upon, so any part of the bird that can be served on a skewer is used for this dish. This means you can try everything from ordinary to rare cuts of meat prepared as yakitori. Here is a list of various types of yakitori, from classics to some more exotic options!
Momo (Chicken Thigh)
Momo is one of the most popular cuts of yakitori in Japan (and our personal favorite!). This well-known, flavorful, and juicy yakitori will likely please virtually anyone. Its popularity has also made it a top seller in convenience stores! The succulent dark meat absorbs the flavorings of either sweet sauce or salt well, making it an irresistible skewer. It's grilled to a perfect firmness: not too hard and not too soft. The familiarity of this cut also makes it a good type to start with if you're new to yakitori!
Tsukune (Chicken Meatball)
The tsukune is another Japanese favorite made from ground chicken and various herbs and minced vegetables. Depending on the restaurant, the specific recipe may vary. Common ingredients include spring onions and shiso leaf. Some shape the tsukune into a long oval rather than individual balls. This type is usually served with a sweet tare sauce, and depending on the region, it can also come with raw egg yolk for dipping. Red flags may fly when you hear "raw egg yolk", but rest assured that it's perfectly safe to eat this type of raw egg in Japan thanks to strict farming and food processing policies. If you ever get the chance, give it a try!
Negima or Torinegi (Chicken with Japanese Leek)
Meat is amazing, but let's not forget about our vegetables! This yakitori has pieces of chicken thigh or breast with generous cuts of Japanese leek (negi) in-between. The scrumptious meat and soft negi create an interesting yet comforting blend of textures. The two ingredients go together surprisingly well.
Kawa (Chicken Skin)
Kawa means "skin", and that is all you will get on this skewer! It may sound odd, but it's pretty delicious. Yakitori is based around enjoying different textures and sensations, and this is a good example of this. Its crispy outer texture and sweet or savory flavorings makes a good contrast with the more tender cuts we've mentioned so far.
Reba (Chicken Liver)
Diving into the more not-so-ordinary cuts here is chicken liver on a skewer! It has a distinct meaty taste that you may not first recognize as chicken. The texture is smooth to the point where it's almost creamy. It is worth a try for the adventurous.
Sunagimo or Kimo (Chicken Gizzard)
This small muscle has a distinctive taste that resembles dark meat, but with a chewier and tougher texture. When cooked as yakitori, it has an earthy and slightly grainy taste. For those who are not familiar with gizzards, it may sound a little odd at first. However, chicken gizzards are commonly eaten in places like Southeast Asia, Mexico, Africa, and even in some parts of Europe.
This was just a small list to give you an idea of the range of yakitori you can try: there are many more types of yakitori to explore. If you don't eat meat, no need to worry, there are vegetarian options too! Popular vegetables grilled as "yakitori" include delectable cherry tomatoes, asparagus, shiitake mushroom, and Japanese leek.
Manners & Etiquette
Using Chopsticks vs. Eating Straight From the Skewer
You may be tempted to grab a pair of chopsticks whenever dining in Japan, but yakitori is best eaten straight from the skewer. The meat portions are carefully sliced into perfect bite-size pieces, making utensils unnecessary. If you prefer to use chopsticks, though, there is no rule against it, although there may be some chefs who frown upon it. Some also use chopsticks to slide the meat off the skewer if they're sharing.
Taste the Yakitori Before Adding Condiments
As mentioned earlier, yakitori is made with a marinade of salt or sweet sauce, but many visitors seem to be unaware of this and automatically reach for the soy sauce. This not only destroys the original taste of the yakitori, but also damages its carefully-crafted aesthetics. It may also offend the chef who has prepared the dish for you. To avoid this, taste the yakitori first before adding any extra condiments.
There are a range of Japanese condiments made available for yakitori. Some you'll find already provided on the table, while others need to be specified when ordering. There are no rules as to which condiment goes with which cut: it's all up to personal preference. Some common condiments include:
- Shichimi togarashi: A powdered mix of seven Japanese spices
- Sansho pepper: A poignant spice ground from sansho peppercorns
- Wasabi: Grated Japanese horseradish
- Yuzukosho: A paste made from Japanese yuzu citrus, chili, and salt
- Umeboshi paste: An intensly sour paste made from Japanese plums (salt-pickled ume)
Disposing of Used Skewers
Yakitori restaurants always provide receptacles for used skewers. They are usually located on the tables for easy disposal. After finishing your yakitori, be sure to place them in the provided receptacles instead of leaving them on the plates. This is also seen as common etiquette.
Top Ranked Yakitori Restaurants in Japan
Here are the top 3 highly ranked yakitori restaurants in all of Japan, according to Japan's well-known restaurant search engine Tabelog.
Located in Tokyo, this yakitori restaurant is ranked number one in Japan and has also received a Michelin star (which some say does not do it justice!) With massive popularity, reservations have to be made up to two months in advance. There is only one "omakase" set menu available, which translates to "leave it to the chef".
Before starting the course, yakitori maestro Yoshiteru Ikegawa will ask if you have any particular preferences or aversions and adjust the course accordingly. The restaurant only uses "Date" chicken from Fukushima, which has gained recognition for its exceptional quality. The courses are very well-balanced from beginning to end and their service has been praised as exceptional. Ultimately, it is Chef Yoshiteru Ikegawa's dedication to his craft and art form that has set him apart from his competitors.
On a side note, they do not serve customers that do not understand Japanese. This might sound discriminatory, but it is because the menu includes semi-raw meat and organs, thus they would like to communicate its risks clearly.
Reservations are recommended to be made by phone. They do not have a site where you can set up a reservation. Due to its immense popularity, be prepared to make several attempts before connecting to the restaurant's server.
Coming in second place is Kanagawa's Ribatei. This restaurant also requires a reservation in advance to dine in (best made 1 to 2 weeks prior). The restaurant was established after World War II, making it one of the oldest yakitori restaurants in Japan
Third-generation owner-chef Tomotsugu Sakakibara will prepare your omakase course. One or two skewers will be served in intervals until you have had your fill or the allotted time is up. Chef Sakakibara also mixes it up with small vegetable platters such as ginkgo nuts, whole bell peppers with chicken broth inside, shiitake mushrooms, or pickles. With over 20 years of experience, Chef Sakakibara's carefully crafted yakitori will leave a great impression on your palate. The cuts of the meat are generous, and the seasoning is consistently spot-on. The restaurant location may be slightly far from the city center, but many customers have said it is worth the detour.
Reservations can only be made by directly calling the restaurant.
3. Torisawa 22
Coming in third is Torisawa 22 located in Tokyo (not to be confused with Torisawa CA10AL, also located in Tokyo!) Making a reservation is a good idea because this tiny restaurant only has a capacity of 8 seats!
Torisawa 22 exclusively uses premium Oyama and Awao brand chicken. What makes this restaurant distinct is that it has a dinner date concept. The layout of the restaurant is set up as a minimal but sleek bar to create that "special night" feeling. With a generous selection of beer, shoju, sake, and wine to complement your yakitori, the chefs will prepare you and your date their omakase course. Of course, you're not obligated to bring a date: you can treat just yourself on a date or go with a group of friends! You will not be disappointed because the yakitori served here is remarkable.
Reservations can only be made by directly calling the restaurant.
If you can't make a reservation to these particular places, there are countless other high-end yakitori restaurants you can go to throughout Japan. Just trust your instincts, and chances are you won't be disappointed!
This concludes our yakitori guide covering popular types, yakitori etiquette, and Japan's best yakitori restaurants. We hope you have found this guide helpful, and if you ever come to Japan, that you definitely give this delicious dish a try!
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.