Although yakitori is a popular Japanese dish today, that wasn’t always the case. During the Edo Period from the early 1600s to the late 1800s, Japanese officials prohibited the consumption of certain types of meat. This did not include chicken, which is the primary meat in yakitori. However, Japanese citizens considered it poor etiquette to grill chicken due to prevailing Buddhist beliefs.
Once it became more socially acceptable to grill chicken, people typically used a meat called shamo. These were roosters that had participated in cockfights. The shamo meat tasted best when chefs stewed it until it was tender. Today the Japanese know this meat as yakitori. It started to appear in more often in the Meiji era after 1868 but didn’t become a common dish until the 1950s. Its popularity then spread from China to the rest of the world.
The most common way to eat yakitori today is in bite-sized pieces on a skewer that also includes vegetables. The diversity of the dish is one of the reasons it has become so popular. People can either eat it as a snack served with drinks or as an entire meal. The variety of sauces available to brush onto the yakitori means that no two experiences eating it are ever the same.
This culinary delight is served in several different types of restaurants in Japan ranging from fine diners to casual pubs. Part of the experience of eating yakitori is stopping to savor the different flavors while eating them. Some chefs may substitute pork or beef for chicken and most include vegetables that alternate places with the small pieces of meat on the skewer stick.
What to Know About the Varieties of Meat
Most Japanese restaurants that serve yakitori offer more than one recipe option. The following are just some of the choices that diners have when placing their order for yakitori:
- Breast or thigh meat cooked with green onions is called negima and is considered a favorite
- The chicken wing, served alone or with other meats, is called tebisaki
- Thigh meat, called momo, is often served with barbeque sauce
- Crispy, grilled chicken skin is called kawa
- Breast meat is called sasami and is often salted and paired with beefsteak
- Japanese chefs create chicken meatballs, called tsukune, from an egg mixture, chicken, and potato starch
- Meat from the tail of the chicken is called sankaku
- Grilled neck meat with added salt is called seseri
How to Order Yakitori in Japan
One thing that causes confusion to people visiting Japan is that yakitori is not a dish by itself but rather a classification. A chef wouldn’t know what to serve if a diner simply requested yakitori. Instead, he or she needs to study the different varieties above and request the preferred type of chicken meat and the vegetables to go with it. The most popular types of yakitori served in Japanese restaurants include momo, negima, tsukune, and torikawa. Of course, these are just a small sampling of the endless possibilities available when eating chicken and vegetables on a stick.