We’re basically trapped in the house on account of the second blizzard in three days. Under the circumstances, it seems appropriate to drink beer.
In Japan, certain foods complement beer drinking. Yakitori 焼き鳥 or やきとり, or grilled chicken, is threaded on bamboo skewers, dipped in a sweet and savory sauce called tare タレ, or seasoned with salt and lemon juice before barbecuing. Kitchens generally specialize in one preparation or another. All parts of the chicken are popular – the skin is grilled until crispy for torikawa とり)かわ, zuri ずり (gizzards), hatsu ハツ (heart), and reba レバー (liver) provide rich texture and flavor, and bonjiri ぼんじり – the tail of the chicken, that small, heart-shaped bump – is a particular delicacy. Fatty and rich, it grills up crisp out the outside. Foods other than chicken are popular as well – scallions, or negi ねぎ, often threaded on two skewers to prevent turning while grilling, like a raft (ikada 筏); green bell pepper or pīman ピーマン (the scourge of all vegetables, in my opinion); and tofu, deep-fried before grilling on skewers (atsuage tofu 厚揚げどうふ).
The best places to consume yakitori are the small stands – offering only a few seats and cold beer – or the small restaurants specializing in yakitori, called kushiyaki くしやき. You also can find yakitori in izakaya 居酒屋 – drinking establishments that serve food.
Kara age 唐揚げ, or deep fried meats, and agedashi dofu, 揚げ出し豆腐, deep fried tofu in a light broth, also are popular dishes at izakaya. What goes better with cold beer than fried food? Fried boneless chicken (tori no kara age) and chicken wings (tebasaki 手羽先) are ubiquitous, accompanied with a simple squeeze of lemon or a drizzle of mayonnaise. The meat is marinated briefly in a garlic and ginger flavored soy sauce before dusting with cornstarch and frying until crisp. Tsukemono 漬物 (literally, pickled things) – assorted pickled vegetables – and edamame 枝豆, boiled fresh soybeans in the pod, are a study in contrasts.
Unfortunately, I don’t have any tofu or chicken hearts (which are one of my favorite yakitori), and I’m not leaving the house in a blizzard, so we’re eating what we have – chicken meat, scallions, and pickles. And cold, cold beer.
As tori とり means chicken, you would think that negiyaki means “grilled scallion.” It does not. Negiyaki ねぎ焼き refers to a type of scallion pancake. So use the word yakitori to refer generally to all these tare- or salt-basted grilled foods.
You can make these with tare or salt – I’m providing both methods and a recipe for tare. As much as I enjoy the sweet/salt dimension that tare provides, I actually prefer salt-grilling, especially if the chicken is high quality and flavorful, because salt-grilling and a squeeze of lemon really let the flavor of the chicken shine through.
1 lb chicken breast, sliced into 1/2″ chunks or into long, thin strips
4 scallions, cut into 1 1/2″ lengths, using all the white and light green
Choose one: sea salt and lemon wedges
or tare (recipe follows)
Bamboo skewers (metal are fine as well)
Prepare a hibachi or barbecue with hot coals. Alternatively, use a grill pan with raised ridges.
Thread the chicken chunks or strips onto bamboo skewers. Thread the scallions onto skewers as well, using two skewers – one on each end – to hold them in place and prevent turning while grilling.
If salt-grilling, sprinkle salt on the chicken on both sides. If using tare, dip or brush the chicken in tare. Brush the grill with oil. Grill the chicken and the scallions on both sides. The chicken should be brushed with or dipped in tare, if using, and re-grilled on both sides (for a total of two brushings). If using salt, do not re-salt when turning.
Serve salt-grilled chicken yakitori and all scallion yakitori with lemon.
Many tare recipes add sugar, which makes the sauce overly sweet. This is unnecessary – the sugar in mirin and the sweetness of sake are sufficient. In Japan, yakitori joints that use tare flavor the sauce with chicken, to boost the flavor of the grilled chicken; you should too.
1 c usukuchi (white soy sauce), or another Japanese soy sauce
1/2 c mirin
2/3 c sake
1 lb chicken wings, backs, necks, or other scraps from chicken fabrication (any combination is fine), cut into small pieces if possible
Place the chicken parts in an oven-safe sauté pan large enough to hold them in a single layer and roast in a 400F /200C oven for 45 minutes to an hour, turning the pieces once if necessary to avoid burning and then remove from the oven and place on the stove. If you don’t have an oven-safe pan, place the chicken in a sauté pan over medium-high heat and allow to brown well, undisturbed, on one side; turn over and brown well on the other side. Whichever method you use, brown as deeply as you can without burning.
Add the sake to the bones over medium heat, using a wooden spoon to scrape up all the brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Once the sake has reduced by at least half, add the mirin and the usukuchi, stirring well. Turn down the heat and simmer for an hour. Add a small amount of water if necessary to keep the mixture from becoming too thick.
Strain through a chinois into a clean container. You can store the tare in the refrigerator – pour out what you intend to use for a particular recipe to avoid contaminating the clean tare with chicken, or bring the used tare to a boil for three minutes after use.
Tori no kara age
Chicken thighs are traditional and hold up best for kara age in my opinion – they are more flavorful and stand up to frying better than white meat, which dries out quickly.
1 lb chicken thigh and leg meat, diced 3/4″
3 tbsp usukuchi (white soy sauce), or another Japanese soy sauce
1 tbsp sake
1 tsp grated ginger, very finely grated using sharkskin or a Japanese grater
1/4 tsp white pepper
Cornstarch for dusting (about 1 c, more or less)
Optional: sansho (sichuan peppercorn), ground and mixed with salt 1:1, and/or ichimi togarishi (ground hot chile)
Combine the usukuchi, sake, ginger, and pepper. Add the chicken and marinate briefly – about 30 minutes, not longer than 2 hours.
Heat oil in a deep cast iron pan or a sauce pot to 365F/185C. Remove the chicken from the marinade, shaking off excess marinade, and dredge in cornstarch, ensuring that the chicken is coated completely. Shake off excess starch. Fry in batches until golden and drain. Serve with lemon wedges and optional sansho salt; sprinkle with ichimi togarishi if you like it spicy.