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Yakitori: an introduction

Yakitori, Japanese tapas-style food which is skewered then charcoal-grilled, is relatively unknown on Western shores. Indeed, when quizzed on what exactly Japanese cuisine consists of, the overwhelming response from the YO! Sushi-brainwashed masses is always sushi, sushi and… sushi.

Well, ladies and gents, it’s time for a change.

The word yakitori itself describes exactly the kind of food we’re talking about; yaki meaning “grilled” and tori meaning “bird” or “chicken”. The simplicity of the name echoes the simplicity of the food, kind of like naming the type of fare McDonalds serves up reheatedfrozenshitsu. Yakitori is enjoyed daily in Japan, usually after work and long into the night, accompanied by litres of ice-cold beer and sake in dimly-lit drinking dens called izakaya. Sushi, however, is usually reserved for special occasions and not eaten with quite the same finger-licking, lip-smacking gusto as yakitori.

So how does it work?

At it’s most basic, morsels of freshly-butchered, free-range chicken are threaded onto bamboo skewers and grilled over a narrow charcoal-fired grill. The charcoal itself is called bincho-tan, a special high-carbon oak charcoal that burns very hot and with minimal odour. We named our restaurant Bincho after the charcoal used in our grills. Clever, eh?

Once 80% cooked, the chicken skewers are dipped into an intensely savoury sauce called tare (pronounced TAH-ray), a secret blend of soy sauce, sake and other ingredients. The skewers are then returned to the grill for a final pass over the coals, where the natural sugars in the sauce caramelise into a sticky, golden glaze. Yakitori chefs in Japan pride themselves on using aged tare, slowly topping up the same earthenware pot over the course of ten, twenty, even thirty years; a good yakitori chef never reveals his recipe for tare, otherwise blood will be shed.

A simpler alternative to tare is to ask for shio (meaning “salt”), where your skewers are sprinkled with crushed sea salt prior to cooking and served with a wedge of freshly-cut lemon. Indeed shio-yaki (meaning… you guessed it, “salt-grilled”), combined with the natural smokiness of the charcoal-grilling process and a twist of tart citrus, is the perfect way to savour the more delicate flavours of whole fish such as sardines or mackerel.

So that, in essence, is yakitori. Of course, all of the above is the briefest of introductions to an entire subdivision of Japanese culture; there are near limitless combinations of chicken, meat, fish and vegetables that can be skewered and grilled, and all with complimentary sauces, salts and garnishes (not to mention the actual techniques of preparation and cooking each type of dish are, in turn, exponentially greater). And don’t even get me started on soups, rice dishes, salads, desserts…

But fear not. We’ll be regularly updating the blog with enticing culinary morsels, mouth-watering photography, stories of skulduggery and mischief, and all the other unspeakable goings-on behind the scenes at the Bincho kitchen. Kampai!

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Kara Age



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