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Guide: Tokyo Yakitori

Every country in the world has their own variation on BBQ grill. In Japan it’s yakitori, which translates to grilled chicken. It’s the food of choice for stressed salarymen in need of both food and liquid refreshment after a long day in the office. Yakitori is the perfect drinking food, whether you feel like beer, nihonshu (rice sake), shōchū (rice spirit) or whiskey and soda on the rocks (very popular in Japan these days), or a combination of all four. Grilled chicken skewers are a match made in polygamous alcoholic heaven.

Yakitori appeared on Japanese dinner tables 150 years ago when the country switched from the Edo era to the Meiji restoration period; or basically from non-meat eating Buddhist to farmed meat eating. Initially chicken was very much rich people’s food with the best cuts going to the wealthy and off cuts making their way onto a hot grill. As chicken farming started to ‘take off’ chicken became more affordable and the whole bird made its way on to the grill.

The breed of chicken used for yakitori is different from those farmed in Western countries. Most yakitori restaurants will serve chicken that is genetically related to the indigenous ‘jidori’ bred. In Japan the emphasis in chicken farming has been on flavour and that means free range healthy chickens, raised with care and butchered with.....love?? The end result is chickens that are raised in better conditions, taste better and are more hygenic.

And all of this means there isn’t the same hang up about eating undercooked chicken in Japan as there is in Western countries. Don’t be put off if you are served rare chicken. Rare chicken in Japan is a sign of quality. I’ve tried it and it’s soooo much better than any other chicken, taking chicken flavour to another level. It’s also possible to find completely raw chicken, sashimi style if you really want to dive in.

When it comes to yakitori you can can choose to play it safe and have thigh, breast, minced ball or wing skewers. Or you can get funky (and traditional) with hearts, livers, neck, kidney, skin, gizzard, cartilage and tongue. Perhaps start with the easy bits and work your way into the second group after a couple shots of sake.

Yakatori restaurants can be very casual places with guests standing and socialising over grilled meat and beer. Or they can be quite traditional with people sitting on a floor covered in tatami mats and zabuton (cushions). This can be a challenge for inflexible tall Westerners. There are also upscale places with formal service and Western style tables. Below are three yakitori options in Tokyo all with English menus or English speaking staff.

Very casual:
Nihon Saisei Sakaba is a standing bar. It’s very laid back and the staff speak pretty good English. This is not a place for the faint hearted; this is a proper yakitori, only unusual cuts and offal make their way onto the grill. You’ll find anything from cow brain to pig spleen to chicken tail here. If you want something equally laid back but not so adventurous, there are a couple of other yakitori places across the road with the same owner but a mix of different menus.
View Details in Tokyo Guide

Mid range:
Toritake is spread over three levels. Western tables on the ground and upper floors and tatami mats in the basement. Although the tatami mats and low tables aren’t made for my long legs, it does make for a more authentic experience so I prefer the basement. The menu is quite large, with a variety of chicken skewers, but also larger plates of food. You could actually come and eat a vegetarian meal if you really wanted, but why would you. It’s gets pretty busy so if you can’t get in or aren’t willing to queue, try Mori just across the road.
View Details in Tokyo Guide

More formal:
Hinaikomachi is fancy (but not too fancy) yakitori. They have Japanese-style seating at the bar and small tables upstairs, with larger Western-style tables and private rooms downstairs. This is the place to come for rare chicken at its best - they use a special breed of hinai-jidori chicken. Again the menu isn’t just yakitori. They also do hot pots and other dishes, all made with chicken. But the yakitori here is so good you should just stick to that. The chicken mince with egg yolk sauce (see below) was out of this world.
View Details in Tokyo Guide

Hinaikomachi Chicken Mince and Egg Yolk

Chicken Mince and Egg Yolk at Hinaikomachi

Hinaikomachi Chicken Wings and Liver

Chicken Wings and Live at Hinaikomachi

Hinaikomachi Rare Chicken

Rare Chicken at Hinaikomachi. Yum!!

Making Friends at Nihon Saisei Sakaba

Making Friends over drinks and yakitori at Nihon Saisei Sakaba

Selection of yakitori at Nihon Saisei Sakaba

Selection of yakitori at Nihon Saisei Sakaba

Chicken wings at Torikate

Chicken wings at Torikate

Chicken Selection at Torikate

Selection of chicken yakitori and shishito peppers at Torikate

Cold beer and yakitori, perfect match at Torikate

Cold beer and yakitori, perfect match at Torikate

Take a seat on the floor at Torikate

Take a seat on the floor at Torikate

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