Chicken lovers, rejoice– Japan is the land of yakitori, the ultimate, final form of chicken (karaage being a close contender).
Those of you well-acquainted with this izakaya staple will need no further introduction, but some of you may well be wondering, what is yakitori?
Enjoy some of the best yakitori in town on a Tokyo bar-hopping tour.
What is Yakitori?
“Yakitori” is of course a Japanese word, but what does “yakitori” mean? Literally translated, it means “grilled chicken”... Basically, what it says on the label! Yakitori are delicious chicken skewers cooked on a charbroiler, seasoned simply with salt or “tare”, a sweet-salty soy glaze. (For another kind of Japanese grilled food, check out our guide to robatayaki.)
Yakitori is one of the nation’s most popular dishes both domestically and internationally. But it may surprise you to know that its history, like much of the Japanese food we enjoy today, is quite recent.
Want to sample this classic Japanese izakaya food in Shinjuku? Join our Yakitori and Ramen Tour!
The History of Yakitori
Yakitori, as we know it today first, appeared in Japan during the Meiji period, with street vendors setting up stalls to sell the freshly-grilled chicken skewers (chicken was, until the meiji period, not allowed to be eaten due to Japan’s status as a Buddhist country).
Chicken meat was expensive at this time, so yakitori’s roots began with serving the bird’s offal (so when Japanese talk about “authentic” yakitori, they are usually referring to eating the bird’s innards more than its meat).
While yakitori disappeared for a while during WWII, broilers and charbroilers imported by occupying American soldiers during the 50s and 60s led yakitori to experience an incredible resurgence in popularity. It became known as an affordable way to eat out and eat well during hard times, taking on the form that we know today.
Fast forward to the 21st Century and yakitori is one of Japan’s most popular and beloved dishes served at restaurants across the country. You can even pick up yakitori, fresh or frozen, from convenience stores or supermarkets.
And of course, street vendors are still going strong– so if you fancy going right back to yakitori’s roots, nothing beats grabbing a box of freshly-grilled yakitori from an old-school yakitori cart. You can visit one of these yakitori carts on our Sunamachi Ginza Street Food Tour!
The Different Types of Yakitori
For those outside of Japan, “yakitori” commonly refers to chicken thigh grilled on a stick. However, there are dozens– maybe even hundreds– of yakitori skewers out there!
We are here to demystify yakitori for you and give you the lowdown on some of the more popular types of yakitori. But before that, we must address an important debate… “shio” vs. “tare”!
Shio vs Tare
As explained before, “tare” is a sweet-salty soy glaze, while “shio” is simply Japanese for “salt”. These are the two common seasonings for yakitori in Japan.
Shio vs Tare can provoke, shall we say, strong opinions… On the whole, most Japanese hold the view that certain skewers are best with salt, while others are much better with tare. It’s which is best with which that can trigger heated debates at the table!
Ultimately of course it comes down to personal preference, but I will give my Shio vs Tare recommendations, based on a generally agreed consensus, for each skewer below. But if in doubt, why not order a skewer of each and see which you prefer?
- Negima (Green Onion)
- Momo (Thigh)
- Tsukune (Chicken Meatballs)
- Tebasaki (Wings)
- Sasami (Breast Tenders)
- Kawa (Chicken Skin)
- Nankotsu (Cartilage)
- Reba (Liver)
- Hatsu (Heart)
- Everything Else!
1. Negima (Green Onion)
This is the go-to yakitori that you may have had in Japanese restaurants in your own country and is what most non-Japanese and Japanese both think of when they hear the word “yakitori”. And for good reason– it is Japan’s favourite yakitori according to a recent survey (in Japanese). (source)
Negima yakitori is wonderful in its simplicity, blending juicy chicken thighs with sliced Japanese green onion. This is a safe choice if you are nervous about some of the other items later down this list and given its popularity within Japan, you can’t go wrong with this one!
Shio vs Tare: You can choose tare or salt for this one– the choice is entirely up to you!
Try this classic yakitori in Kyoto as part of the Pontocho Food Tour!
2. Momo (Thigh)
This is similar to the above, only without the addition of green onion.
Once again, this is a good option for those not confident enough to wade into the world of offal just yet!
Shio vs Tare: Once again, this is a matter of personal preference. Pick whichever you like!
3. Tsukune (Chicken Meatballs)
This is usually served one of two ways– several meatballs lined up on the skewer, or one big drumstick-like meatball on a skewer. It is also commonly served with “karashi”, a fiery Japanese mustard, or an egg yolk for dipping.
The meatball mixture may also contain vegetables, onions or garlic and other seasonings like miso or shiso. Every yakitori joint or izakaya tends to have their own secret tsukune recipe.
Shio vs Tare: Tare, hands-down. You don’t want to be one of those people who orders salted tsukune…
4. Tebasaki (Wings)
Crispy, crunchy wings! What more is there to say?
Incidentally, tebasaki are something of a local specialty in Nagoya, where much larger, juicer wings than the average yakitori joint are commonly served off the skewer with a black pepper-based spice mix, sweet or spicy sauces. These juicy yakitori are a must-try when visiting Nagoya, so make sure not to miss them by joining our Specialties of Nagoya Tour!
Outside of Nagoya, however, your options will be limited to trusty salt or tare.
Shio vs Tare: The jury is out on this one. It depends how you like your wings! For a bit of extra crunch, opt for shio. If you like your wings sticky, tare is the way to go.
5. Sasami (Breast Tenders)
Sasami uses the softest, most moist part of the chicken breast to create plump and juicy skewers. Be warned that these are often among the more expensive items on the menu.
Sasami skewers are seldom just the chicken on its own. The meat is commonly stuffed or coated with Japanese pickled plum paste and fragrant shiso leaves, but cheese and seaweed is also a topping I have seen a lot of lately.
Shio vs Tare: Given that it so commonly comes with a topping, you may actually not get an option here. But if you do, then to be safe, choose shio so as not to overpower the other topping.
6. Kawa (Chicken Skin)
Chicken in Japan is commonly cooked skin-on, so it’s no surprise that tasty chicken skins are a staple on any yakitori menu!
Using the skin also harkens back to yakitori’s roots, where vendors used parts of the bird that might otherwise have been discarded. So by trying this dish, you are really starting to wade into yakitori’s authentic territory!
Shio vs Tare: In my experience, tare makes chicken skins soft and unpleasantly chewy. Salt makes them deliciously crisp, so I would suggest shio.
7. Nankotsu (Cartilage)
Now we are getting into truly adventurous (and authentic) yakitori territory! Nankotsu is chicken cartilage, typically from either the breast or leg of the bird. Again, this particular dish harkens back to yakitori’s origins.
If you are from a western country, the texture of cartilage might be unfamiliar to you– it is somewhere between chewy and crunchy.
Shio vs Tare: Shio for sure. No one will judge you if you ask for tare. Not out loud, at least…
8. Reba (Liver)
A liver skewer truly harkens back to the origins of yakitori and ordering one will earn you admiration from fellow Japanese diners. This dish is, quite simply, whole or sliced chicken livers on skewers.
If you enjoy pâté in your home country, you will almost certainly enjoy this one.
Shio vs Tare: My pick for offal in general would be salt. However, if you find the taste of liver quite strong, you might prefer tare to dial it down a bit.
Try liver skewers and other yakitori in Fukuoka on our Yatai Street Food Tour!
9. Hatsu (Heart)
Another dish that will gain you the respect of hardy yakitori lovers. This one is, as its name would suggest, the heart of the bird, usually sliced.
Don’t balk at the idea of eating a heart! You might imagine this one would be tough and chewy with an overpowering flavor. But you will find that it is pleasantly soft and tender with a very delicate flavour, not too dissimilar to chicken thigh.
Shio vs Tare: This one is just perfect with a delicate dusting of shio.
10. Everything Else!
Despite “yakitori” meaning “grilled chicken”, pork belly and tenderloin are also often on the menu. Seafood, such as scallops and shrimps, also make appearances on yakitori menus in seaside towns.
Raw chicken sashimi also features sometimes. Fear of eating raw chicken is imbued in a lot of cultures, but be assured that in Japan, only specific cuts of chicken served under very specific conditions may be served as chicken sashimi! You run a very low risk of getting sick from this, so give it a try if it's served.
Seasonal vegetables are also often available, such as peppers, Japanese pumpkin or shiitake mushrooms.
There are also far more weird and wonderful dishes that we didn’t cover in our list above. If you really want to floor even the most die-hard yakitori enthusiast, chicken testes, fallopian tubes with ovaries still attached, gizzards and various segments of intestine are all dishes I have seen, and consumed (not always willingly), at yakitori restaurants. Let me tell you, eating any of these will give you some pretty impressive bragging rights among your friends back at home…
How to Enjoy Yakitori
Unlike a number of other Japanese foods, there is not really an etiquette for eating yakitori. With that being said, there are one or two guidelines that it’s advisable to remember.
The first is to eat it while it’s warm! Yakitori cools off pretty quickly, so don’t leave it sitting in the open for too long. The cooler the meat becomes, the more difficult it becomes to take off of the skewers.
Which brings us to our next point– getting the meat off your skewer! Some softer yakitori dishes will slide off the skewer pretty easily with your teeth so you can go right ahead and dig right in. If you’re struggling to get it off with your teeth then it’s politer and easier to hold the skewer vertically, tip touching your plate, and slide the meat off the skewer one piece at a time with your chopsticks. This is also considered the polite thing to do if you are sharing a yakitori skewer between many people.
As for those used bamboo skewers, you may notice that there is an empty cup at your table. Once you’ve finished a yakitori dish, simply put the used skewer in the cup to keep them from cluttering up your plates and the table. Easy!
Finally, your choice of drink to accompany your yakitori is important! For many, nothing compliments yakitori like a nice, cold “nama” (draft beer). Others may prefer a “lemon sour”, a highball-based drink with sour lemon syrup, to refresh your palate between skewers. For those who do not drink, yakitori feels immensely satisfying alongside carbonated soft drinks like cola or ginger ale.
Where to Eat Yakitori? Everywhere!
Yakitori is everywhere. It’s almost impossible to find a town in Japan that doesn’t have it on the menu!
If you are in larger cities like Tokyo, Osaka or Nagoya then you may even come across yakitori chain restaurants. A popular yakitori chain is “Torikizoku”, serving almost exclusively yakitori. You will recognise them by their bright yellow signs with red font, also in English.
As for locally-run yakitori restaurants, look out for red lanterns or shop signs bearing the hiragana for “yakitori” (やきとり). There are plenty of them around, especially in popular nightlife areas like Omoide Yokocho in Shinjuku, Hoppy Street in Asakusa, Nanba in Osaka and the backstreets of Kyoto’s Karasuma-Shijo area. For a local experience, try yakitori on one of our Yakitori Food Tours!
Yakitori is also often available on the menu of regular izakayas. If you'd like to try yakitori at some of the best izakaya in Shinjuku, join the Shinjuku After Dark Izakaya Tour!
One final point to keep in mind is that depending on where you are in Japan, yakitori may not come in the skewer variety that you are used to. For example, in Ehime prefecture, yakitori is grilled on a flat iron pan and does not come on a skewer. In Hokkaido, “yakitori” refers almost exclusively to grilled pork! In other regions, yakitori is only ever served as offal. Keep this in mind when travelling around Japan to avoid any surprises at the restaurant!
You’re Ready for Yakitori!
Yakitori is, like so much of Japanese cuisine, something that is best experienced by eating it yourself. And now that you’re a master of the various types of yakitori, its origins and how and where to eat it, you’re ready to enjoy it on your next visit to Japan!
So take your skewers of choice in one hand and your “nama” in the other and let’s give a big “kanpai” to yakitori, the hero of Japanese chicken dishes.