Jul 1, 2014
Yakitori may be a mainstay in izakayas, and the go-to option for people looking for a quick and easy meal after a long day of work. But in the hands of the right chefs, these meaty morsels are elevated to something quite special.
The introduction of chicken as a staple in the Japanese diet occurred fairly recently. Although chicken farming started to take off during the Edo era (1603 – 1867), chicken was considered a luxury back in the day. Fish was more commonly eaten, and when the Japanese did eat meat, it was more likely to be pheasant, quail cock, goose, and duck, rather than chicken.
The Meiji Restoration brought about a significant overhaul in the Japanese diet. Sukiyaki (Japanese soup or stew) was introduced, and it quickly gained popularity, contributing to the rise of chicken consumption.
Although chicken quickly proved to be a hit, the stallholders who sold skewered items back in the day could not yet afford to buy whole chickens. As a result, they often sold the grilled chicken gristle or offal that high-end restaurants threw out, alongside other kinds of grilled meat. The term “yakitori” specifically refers to grilled chicken, but it soon became an all-encompassing term for any type of grilled meat.
During and just after the end of World War II, chicken became even scarcer. Although some yakitori restaurants thrived, the meat that was predominantly sold was pork and beef. Kushikatsu (deep-fried skewered meat) was also becoming increasingly popular, particularly in the Kansai area.
Perhaps the biggest turning point for yakitori came during the occupation of Japan by the Allied Forces. The US introduced broilers to the market, leading to cheaper supplies of chicken. This, in turn, allowed for the proliferation of izakayas (casual bars), as people soon realised how well these grilled, juicy morsels paired with beer and other types of alcohol.
Singapore, too, has no shortage of restaurants selling Japanese-style meat skewers. But not all yakitori are created equal; regional differences in ingredients and methods of preparation do exist. At Han, kushikatsu, which are skewers that are deep fried – rather than grilled – are served up, while Tsukune Ichigo specialises in tsukune (chicken meatballs). To add to the diversity, Asai Masashi, head chef of Bincho, grills his chicken, but eschews the use of skewers altogether. We speak to the chefs of the respective establishments to find out more.
(Photography Raymond Toh/Vineyard Production Text Denise Li)