Note: This is the second chapter in a two-part series about Precision Yakitori in Japan, featuring the Yakitori prep and the cooking at Yakitori Moe West. While you can read this chapter on its own to start, I recommend going back and reading chapter 1 afterwards to see all the work that goes into making Kodawari Yakitori skewers.
Kappabashi - The Kitchen District
After the magical experience of witnessing the whole prep process at Yakitori Moe West, I left to go meet up with my friends Keiko and Rashad who recently transitioned from a career of Hospitality in Las Vegas to start a food tourism venture in Japan. They had told me about Kappabashi, Tokyo’s Kitchenware district so we decided to spend some time before my dinner back at Yakitori Moe West exploring this part of town which was recommended as a must visit for any professional or novice cooks.
Because the district stretches for 10 blocks and spreads into the side streets you can spend all day just walking around, but it’s probably best to focus on few key items you may have been wishing for such as a quality Japanese knife. My ambitious goal was to look at Yakitori signs, Binchotan grills, knives, plates, aprons, and ceramic pots for Yakitori Tare sauce in the 2 short hours there.
These plates are very similar to the ones I can find in Japantown for $10 to $15 each. At these shops in Kappabashi they are around 200-400 Yen (about $2-$4) each. If you find a plate you like, I recommend buying two, just in case it breaks during the flight back.
Here are just a few of the grills on display at the commercial kitchen equipment shops. More variety of grills are available inside. When it comes to cookware like these Yakitori grills, you’re going to come across a variety of sizes and different quality levels that reflects on the price. Also, many of these appliances are not compatible with kitchen standards (electricity or gas connections) outside Japan so you need to keep that in mind.
Keiko helped me look for clay pots to store my one year old Yakitori Tare sauce. However, I decided I’ll get a pot like this when I have a brick and mortar Yakitori shop. Until then, my plastic pot with a sealing lid helps me travel around with my sauce.
You can find everything at Kappabashi for restaurants, including signs, chef's wear and even the model display food items you see in front of Japanese restaurants and cafes.
The Kodawari of Kappabashi
Along with plates, Yakitori sign, and a new apron, I purchased a Damascus petty knife in Kappabashi and the owner told me he will sharpen it for me before boxing it. When I asked why, he explained that knives from the factory come with only about 80% sharpness. This process of the first sharpening is called Honbazuke 本刃付け which means putting on (or exposing) the knife’s real edge.
He spent at least 15 minutes using various grits of whetstones to sharpen it to a razor-like edge that I still can’t reproduce even though I’ve gotten decent at using my whetstones.
Unlike shopping for kitchen supplies at a big-box retailer like Crate and Barrel or Bed Bad and Beyond you will receive expert advice and service because each of these shop owners in Kappabashi is a specialist in their domain. They may sell Japanese knives at Williams Sonoma too (at prices greater than Kappabashi) but no employee is going to teach you about Honbazuke or offer an expert sharpening service free of charge for you.
Getting to Kappabashi
To get to Kappabashi in Tokyo, take the metro and get off the Tawaramachi station. Just walk west for about 3 blocks and when you see a building with a giant chef’s head status on top you know you’re there. From there on just walk for block after block to experience an overwhelming collection of shops specializing in all things useful for home and professional kitchens.
100 Yen Yakitori on the Street
On the walk back to the Tawaramachi metro station I noticed a charming Grandmom and Grandpop street vendor selling a limited offering of Yakitori skewers for 100 Yen each.
In Japan, I just can’t seem to get away from Yakitori. Even though I was on my way to my first of two Yakitori dinners, I had to stop at this vendor and order a liver skewer.
It’s not the best tasting liver in my life, but definitely better than anything in the states. Most importantly it was only a single 100 Yen coin and to have hot food cooked with charcoal by the lovely grandma on this rainy night was truly heartwarming.
After Kappabashi, I hurried to my first Yakitori dinner of the night in Akasaka at a place called Iyama where I had some amazing Torisashi (chicken sashimi) including raw liver, raw gizzard, and raw heart. I’ll save that experience for a future blog post. For now, let’s get back to Yakitori Moe West!
Back to Yakitori Moe West
It was 8:40 PM when I finished my first Yakitori dinner at Iyama. I walked back to Roppongi to Yakitori Moe West for a 9 PM seating to meet a friend so we can enjoy Daisuke’s meal and devour all the grilled versions of the skewers I witnessed being prepped in the morning. I was greeted by the front staff and seated at the counter, where right in front was chef Daisuke in full focus mode with his bandana and Japanese chef uniform. This is what you would call カッコイイ！Kakkoii. Super cool!
Zensai - Appetizers
Along with my Oolong Chuhai (Shochu cocktail) to start came the elegant appetizer set that immediately told me this is not the typical Yakitori dining experience.
Small Ayu (sweet fish) roe and salted coffee powder on top. A Sablé soft cookie made with Matsutake, a premium Japanese mushroom sought after for its fragrant smell and flavors. Lastly, there is the house-smoked salmon with guacamole on a wafer cup.
Wow, am I at a French restaurant? The Japanese ingredients like Ayu and Matsutake and the Momiji (Japanese maple) leaf which is a common garnish in Kaiseki dishes reminded me that this is a Japanese restaurant. These Zensai items change all the time to make it fun for the guests.
Hatsu - Heart
I’m not sure if this was done on purpose, but the Yakitori that had the most meaning for my visit came out as the first Yakitori. As mentioned in the heart section of chapter 1, it was this unique Yakitoribaka heart skewer style that sparked the cross-county conversation with Daisuke on social media.
By skewering the heart with the halves split and the fattiest parts in the inside, you get a very juicy bite of heart. One bite and I’m in heaven, but luckily this skewer comes with 3 Yakitoribaka hearts!
Konbuzuke Sasami - Tender
This chicken tender has been marinated in Konbu dashi for 2 days which enhances what would normally be a tender but rather simple white meat skewer. The Konbu flavor is subtle and does not get in the way of the natural delicate flavors of Jidori chicken tender.
Topped with wasabi and cooked slightly rare, this was soft and delicious.
Sunagimo Engawa - Gizzard Skin
This is the skin portion of the gizzard skewered with slivers of Tokyo Negi (large green onions) which he made and stored in basil leaves along with the whole gizzard skewers.
I’ve never had this skin part of the gizzard isolated as a skewer piece like this. It has a slight crunch of gizzard but it is more tender and easy to bite.
The World's Best Kawa - Skin
To simply call this Kawa, like any other shop calls skin, I feel is almost a discredit to the magnificence of this perfected skin skewer. Although the picture might be small and a bit blurry, notice all the oil bubbles on the surface of the skin. When the Kawa skewer came out, the oils were still loudly sizzling and crackling on the surface.
Because of Daisuke’s original intricate way of folding each layer in multiple directions, the effect was essentially a skin skewer that looked like and tasted like it was deep fried in its own fat. Imagine the best tasting fried Chicken, (I like KFC when it’s super fresh) and this is the granddaddy of that skin on that fried chicken. I have not been, but I’ve seen photos of Kawa from other famous and well-acclaimed Yakitori shops in Japan, and at least appearance wise, it does not look this perfect.
Evenly golden in color and bubbling with chicken juice, this Kawa skewer alone is worth the trip to Yakitori Moe West!
Hatsumoto- Main Arteries
This is the fatty veiny artery part at the top of the heart that connects to the liver. With the special tare (more on that later in the liver section below) that’s smoked over Binchotan, it’s such a satisfying and rare skewer. Take a bite, swallow it down with beer and take another bite. This is the Yakitori life I think about everyday.
Hizagashira - Kneecap
This is the juicy thigh meat around the kneecap. Flavored with only salt and the smoke of the Binchotan, it’s a nice refreshing and meaty follow-up to the chewy and flavorful Hatsumoto with tare right before.
Next up came the Tsukune, which is the ground chicken or "meatball" skewer. Because the Tsukune had a chance to rest and cool in the fridge, it has hardened a bit so that I can hang on the Yakitori grill. However, in the photo above you can see Daisuke carefully kneading it firmly to ensure it won’t crumble on the grill.
As I was biting into the Tsukune I remembered what Daisuke said in the morning during the prep. He half seriously mentioned that the secret to making his Tsukune tasty was to give it happy thoughts and love as you carefully knead it on to the skewer. Daisuke’s Tsukune here is very gentle with an initial aroma of the Yuzu zest. I was getting full at this point because of my earlier dinner, but the lightness in the texture and the fresh citrus smell of this Tsukune made it easy to enjoy and finish in two bites.
Drinking with the Master
If you have enjoyed your Yakitori so far, always ask if you can get them a drink of their choice. It’s really hot back in the grill area so an ice cold beer is very refreshing! As Daisuke was working on the last skewer of the night, it was time for a drink. Kanpai!
For the last skewer came out the fatty white liver dipped in his special Tare sauce. The Tare here is very special and full of Kodawari. It is a 4 years old, Tsugitashi 継ぎ足し meaning you add more new sauce to the mother sauce which has collected the flavors of previous skewers. However, for the last year, Daisuke has altered the recipe by using Madeira wine instead of the traditional sake to match with the flavors of the liver skewer.
This skewer is very rich and creamy like Foie and this was surely going to put me over the top. I’ve already loosened my belt several skewers ago. So far all the liver skewers I had in Japan had been firm yet melts in your mouth after the first bite. This is very different from the liver Yakitori experiences in America which always is generally flakey and leaves a bit of that metallic flavor in your mouth. This skewer, because it is the fattier white liver, took all the good parts about liver Yakitori in Japan, but made it even better because of the extra richness and perfectly matched Madeira Tare.
This was superb way to finish my Tokyo Yakitori tour!
There's More? Chicken Ramen with Matsutake Wonton
I honestly thought we were done. My dinner guest Marie and I had just enough room for the last sips of our drinks but Daisuke has been looking at my Sapporo ramen posts on Instagram and told me I had to try his ramen for the Shime (closer dish). He said they will make it a smaller portion. A few minutes later, out came this clean and simple bowl of noodles. Highly restrained, with a clear broth and just radish sprouts on top.
The aroma is that of a crisp chicken broth, but there’s also a fragrance of something earthy. He explains this is chicken ramen with handmade noodles and in the middle is a wonton with Matsutake mushroom filling. The Matsutake flavors add further depth to this clear but flavor-rich broth made by the discarded carcass, feet, tendons and cartilage during the prep.
The handmade wide noodles felt similar to that in Okinawa Soba. It was refreshing for me after my Hokkaido ramen binge the week before with the traditional round noodles.
What a meal! I didn’t have room for desserts but at the end of the dinner Yakitoribaka gave me his signature “Yakitori Life Goes On” T-shirt that I’ve seen him wear on a bunch of his social media posts and also earlier during the morning prep. These are custom made and not sold anywhere. This is definitely what every fanboy loves and wants, limited edition collectibles of whatever he’s passionately following!
Thank you Tokyo! It was a quick visit, but this fanboy of Gundam and Yakitori is very satisfied.
I may not be building Gundam models these days, but I am tremendously blessed that almost every day I get to use my hands and creative mind to build amazing meals out of chicken parts. Just like there’s a global community around anime and collectibles such as Gundam, I hope the Yakitori community continues to grow with awesome people like Yakitoribaka and others I’m meeting who love Japanese grilled chicken on sticks.
Yakitori Life Goes On
Make sure to follow Yakitoribaka, and if you’re in Tokyo make sure to visit Yakitori Moe West (map) and get Daisuke a cold beer!
I give Yakitori Moe West 5/5 Yakitoriguy Stars ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Preface: Grab a beer or pour yourself a glass of wine for this one. With so much to cover this post is broken up into two chapters. In the first chapter, I talk about giant Japanese robots and how Kodawari goes into the preparation work of Yakitori, specifically at Yakitori Moe West in Tokyo. The second chapter covers the kitchenware district of Kappabashi right before a full dining review of the amazing grilled Yakitori at Yakitori Moe West. It’s the longest Kodawari Stories post I’ve written so far, but I hope it rewards you with a deeper understanding of the complexity and the depth of Yakitori in Japan and further piques your curiosity in the Kodawari style Yakitori from Japan.
Breaking Things Down to Build Something Bigger
What began as a simple 2018 New Years resolution to learn how to make Yakitori for friends at home became my creative outlet that quickly transformed into a life passion within my first few weeks of learning how to cut chicken.
Cooking Yakitori is about using your hands to carefully break down a whole chicken into individual parts and putting these pieces back together into something different. By separating the pieces you get to experience the unique individual textures and flavors you don’t get from a homogenous whole grilled chicken.
Preparing Yakitori requires a steady knife work to carefully cut the chicken limbs into smaller pieces with precision and then you sort through the pieces on the cutting board looking for the right shape and size to put together an individual skewer. When putting together the skewers you need to make sure each piece is carefully skewered through the center and not lopsided so that it cooks evenly on the grill.
What was it that made this process of cooking Yakitori so enjoyable that I can breakdown multiple chickens a week, sometimes daily, and still continue to do it without any loss to its enjoyment even a whole year later?
I found the answer in my trip to the historical city of Edo, more commonly now known as Tokyo. After my tour of Yakitori and Ramen spots in Hokkaido, my next destination was to the capital city of Japan to research more about Yakitori, a dish that started in the Edo period when the Tokugawa shogunate ruled Japan.
Tokyo is Japan. From the historical monuments like the Meiji Shrine and the Imperial Palace to the infamous fashions of Harajuku or the bright billboards and noise of the Shibuya crossing, it is full of iconic stimulation for all your sensory receptors. As tourists dressed up in Super Mario outfits zip around in go-karts through the streets lined with massive skyscrapers and local businessmen pack the subways during rush hour, Tokyo dwarfs Manhattan and many other major cities of the world. Tokyo is a bright and loud spectacle that screams "Hey welcome, this is modern Japan!"
While there are many defining cultural aspects of Japan found in Tokyo, the one that interested me the most stands 20 meters tall in Odaiba. Call me a big geek but my first quest right after dropping my luggage at the apartment was to visit the new life-size Gundam statue built at Diver City in Odaiba. To me, this was like a religious pilgrimage to see a monument I’ve dreamed about as a kid. I actually visited Odaiba years before to see the original RX-78 Gundam statue, however, this was the newest version based off the newer Unicorn Gundam and even the transformation sequence has been recreated in real life!
The details on this Unicorn Gundam statue is magical. You can see all the Kodawari such as the “Caution” warning symbols all the way to the realistic rivets that really make this Gundam seem like it belongs in a real military base and will start walking around any moment into battle. This Gundam is modeled after one of the more recent Unicorn Gundam and even is built with moving and glowing panels as it transforms from the sleeker Unicorn mode to the Gundam form just like in the animation. The details here rival or perhaps surpasses that you see in Hollywood animatronic special effects or Disneyland attractions. This statue is just one example of the extra attention to detail that speaks out to me about the craftsmanship found in Japan.
Why Gundam is Important to Me and Most 30 to 40 Year Olds from Japan
Gundam is a Japanese anime series and franchise featuring the titular mechanical giant humanoid robot called Gundam that’s piloted by humans in the near future. Since its television cartoon inception in 1979, there have been many versions of Gundam in the ongoing franchise and 40 years later, it has become one of the biggest cultural giant robot icon in the world.
Gundam recently had a major role in the Spielberg film Ready Player One, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you see a Gundam in the upcoming 2020 Tokyo Olympic ceremonies. What makes the Gundam franchise very successful was not just the anime, but the cultural following behind the toys called Gunpla (Gundam Plastic) Models where you build a replica action figure from small plastic parts. Similar to building Legos, but with Gunpla you had to carefully cut apart all hundreds, sometimes thousands, of plastic pieces first and put them together.
Using an Xacto knife, precision clippers, and a cutting mat you carefully cut apart the small pieces off the plastic frame, sand out the rough edges, and apply paint as needed. Then following the Ikea-furniture like instruction book, you snap together all the pieces until it becomes the completed action model for play or display.
When you compare the tools and the delicate skills involved, you can see that Yakitori making is like building a Gundam model. Building a Gundam model was something I enjoyed passionately as a child. I probably built nearly a hundred Gundam model kits during my adolescence.
I now believe this is why I never get bored or tired of cutting sometimes up to 20 whole chickens at a time and carefully cutting out hundreds of smaller pieces to build a hundred Yakitori skewers at a time.
For me cutting chicken and making Yakitori skewers is both therapeutic and invigorating, reminding me exactly of my childhood building Gundam models. Instead of building toys for display, I now get to cook my Yakitori and feed it to all my guests who respond back with positive excitement.
Visiting Yakitoribaka at Yakitori Moe West
After checking off the visit to the life-size Gundam from my list of to-dos in Tokyo, I was ready for my next exciting destination in Tokyo, a visit to Yakitori Moe West to meet Grill Master Daisuke (aka Yakitoribaka), who is pushing the envelope of Yakitori making. You know he’s passionate or crazy about Yakitori because the Japanese word “baka” means foolish or crazy.
For me, traditional Yakitori shops like Toriyoshi is essential to the cuisine and needs to always exist as the golden standard. However, just like in any art or craftsmanship, innovation and the ability to push the envelope is key for the growth of the cuisine. I believe it’s the responsibility of chefs in every cuisine to constantly strive for newer methods and excellence, and also a consumers' responsibility too to demand more from the chefs that this constant strive for excellence is met. Yakitoribaka is always pushing the envelope at Yakitori Moe West.
About Yakitori Moe West
Yakitori Moe West is a restaurant in Tokyo specializing in modern Yakitori cuisine. The restaurant opened its doors in 2010 as the second sister shop to Yakitori Moe which opened in 2002. Yakitori Moe and Moe West were both founded by Toshiaki Abe who wanted to start a contemporary Yakitori shop that focussed on quality ingredients and extra attention to detail to show the International clientele what Japan’s best Yakitori is about. This is one of the reasons that both shops are located in Roppongi, central to many foreigners working in the offices of global companies.
The two shop's names are interesting as it’s officially spelled in the shop signs and on online maps in a combination of English and Japanese as "Yakitori 燃" and "Yakitori 燃 West" with the character "燃" (Moe) written in Japanese kanji while Yakitori is written in English.
That word Moe means to burn, but when the kanji character is broken down it translates to "火" meaning fire and "然" meaning simple or natural things. So according to Mr. Abe, the use of the Kanji "燃" for him means taking simple things and transforming its state into something greater through fire and hot passion. The reason Yakitori is written in English instead of the Japanese "焼き鳥" is his dream so that Yakitori can evolve beyond a Japanese cuisine and become a global icon.
Getting to Yakitori Moe West
Right after the morning commuter rush, I took the Hibiya train and got off at Roppongi station. After walking for 5 minutes, I came across what appears like an older business building rather than a restaurant space. But as you follow the signs and walk downstairs you will come across the large stairway mural that says “Yakitori Life Goes On”.
Enter the front doors and inside is a chic Japanese restaurant with deeply stained wood fixtures with black and red colored wall panels featuring various exquisite wine and sake bottles. There’s also a beautiful gold European style beer tap tower at the center of the front counter area, the place feels more like a bar than a traditional Japanese Izakaya. The atmosphere of this restaurant makes sense because it’s in the Roppongi Hills, an affluent district in Tokyo surrounded by international financial institutions and tech companies like Google and Facebook.
The front door was open and Grill-Master Daisuke welcomed me from behind the kitchen counter wearing his signature “Yakitori Life Goes On” t-shirt he designed. As the Grill-Master, he is the first to come into the shop every morning and was the and only one there at this time. With bleached golden hair and a body built like a baseball player he definitely has a noteworthy strong presence behind the counter. But he’s a nice guy, greeting me politely bowing down saying his knives are freshly sharpened, and the chicken is ready for breakdown.
Yakitori Shop Morning Prep
This is what I was looking forward to experiencing in Tokyo (equally important to Gundam). Throughout the next few hours, Daisuke showed me his whole morning Yakitori prep routine. With each passing moments of various skewering tasks, it becomes more apparent how much Kodawari is in his Yakitori served at Yakitori Moe West.
Like doctor-patient confidentiality, I feel that there’s also a Yakitori Jedi-Master and young Padawan secrecy that I hope to maintain and not reveal all his Yakitori magic, other than what he’s already shown publicly before. However, out of the several hours of video footage I’ve captured, I am sharing the notable highlights that show you how Daisuke aka Yakitoribaka and his Yakitori served at Yakitori Moe West is so unique and on a whole different class of Kodawari even in Japan.
Chicken 解体 - Breaking Down a Chicken
Daisuke uses whole chickens that are around 130 days old from Ehime in Shikoku. Unlike the whole chickens in the US grocery store shelves, these have the whole neck and feet still attached. At 130 days old, these are considered “older” chickens and so the muscles are a bit tough, so he actually ages it for 2 weeks in the fridge, which makes the meat softer.
When breaking down this chicken, he uses a bigger and stronger Deba Bouchou, a Japanese knife which is traditionally used for breaking down and filleting fish. It is a thick and tough knife that can break through animal bones. He uses a Honesuki (traditional chicken boning knife) on younger chickens only.
Using a combination of slicing around the joints and pulling off the muscles with force, he breaks down the whole chicken quickly and efficiently into the legs, breasts, tenders, wings, and skin. Many of these steps were similar to what I’ve already been doing when I break down my chickens. However, Daisuke will sometimes combine what I do in two steps into one which definitely makes it quicker. These new steps are definitely things I’ve adapted into my routine after being shown his methods which I share on my Instagram stories and in my chicken cutting classes.
When you look at the individual parts in the image above, they are fresh and not slimy even though this is a chicken he’s left in the fridge for 2 weeks. This makes you wonder what’s going on with the chickens you buy at the US grocery stores that are advertised as “fresh chickens” and are slimy right out of the package.
When I asked about his background into mastering Yakitori, Daisuke learned from watching his “Taisho” (master) and then started tweaking these methods to adapt to his own style. This adaptation is what makes Yakitori cooking fun. There aren’t really strict rules, but just different methods that chefs have learned and adjusted to over the years to make Yakitori work for them at their shop.
One example of this constant adaptation at Yakitori Moe West is that these Ehime chickens originally did not come with the feet attached. At some point, he started requesting his butchers to include the bottom part of the leg so that he can use the feet as a gripping handle to cleanly pull apart the Achilles tendons off the drumsticks.
He does this by twisting the foot to break the connecting heel joint, and the Achilles tendons slide right out and the muscles come cleanly off the bone. This is the knowledge of a Shokunin (craftsman) who is always looking for new ways to improve his craft.
The feet and tendons, along with the body carcass and other harder to chew parts such as the belly meat go into a pile used for making soup.
Even the knee cartilage, considered a delicacy part at most Yakitori shops, Daisuke discards into the soup pile because it is “too hard” when taken from this 130-day old chicken. For knee cartilage skewers, he says the best textures are from a 50-70 days old chicken. That’s a true Kodawari knowledge-drop.
Making the Skewers - The Importance of Clean and Precise Cuts
Once all the parts are broken down it’s time to start making the skewers. During this stage of preparation, Daisuke switches over to a Sujihiki knife, commonly used for slicing through meat.
Because of the long and narrow blade on a Sujihiki, Daisuke can make meticulous single stroke slices as you would see with sashimi fish versus a hacked saw motion you might get on a carved turkey. This is an important Kodawari detail to ensure each piece going on the skewer is cut with precision because any strands of meat sticking out can burn and taste bitter.
The Difference Between Summer and Winter Chicken
For his Negima skewer, he uses the Soriresu (chicken oysters), inner thigh, and shoulder meat. These pieces are wrapped in the thigh skin. One Kodawari technique is to add in some fat slivers taken from the breast meat, and place them under the skin to add extra juiciness into the entire skewer.
This is his unique Kodawari technique used with the chickens raised in the hotter summer time as those birds are constantly sweating and are not as juicy. Winter chickens are juicy so he doesn't add extra fat into the skewers. He knows all this because he visits the chicken farm every year in Ehime. When you know your chicken to the most intimate details, you can make better Yakitori.
From one chicken Daisuke can make 10 Negima skewers. He brushes the skewers with oil and then sprinkles on salt from Ishigaki (the Southern islands of Okinawa) before putting it in trays for refrigeration. He used to sprinkle the salt right before grilling but discovered that due to the thicker skin of Jidori chicken, pre-salting allows time for the salt to penetrate the meat and enhance the chicken’s umami. For context, I got to skewer Japanese Jidori chicken during my training in Japan and the skin is double if not triple the thickness of Mary’s organic chicken I use in America. You definitely need a strong and sharp skewer and the confidence to firmly thrust the skewer into each piece make a clean Yakitori when cooking with Japanese Jidori chicken.
Different Skewers for Different Ingredients
At Yakitori Moe West they use 4 different sizes and shapes of skewers. I do the same too, as for certain meats or veggies like the onions, you need to be mindful about not splitting the delicate pieces by using too large of a skewer. However, for some pieces that are hard, you need bigger and stronger skewers so it can pierce through the meat.
By the way, when it comes to making Yakitori skewers, chef Daisuke personally chooses to use new bamboo skewers. This may seem like the obvious choice from a sanitary standpoint, but some famous shops actually wash and reuse skewers. The traditional reason is once a skewer has been cooked on a Binchotan grill, any wood splinters are burned off and the skewers get carbonized and get harder, which makes it easier to skewer through meats. However, at Yakitori Moe West they use new skewers and his reason is; “I would feel weird and bad feeding Yakitori to a young lady using a skewer that was in the mouth of an old businessman the night before”. I agree too, which is why whether you’re a young lady or an old man, everyone gets new skewers at my Brewzakaya dinners.
Using Basil with Gizzards
Daisuke shows me the parts on the gizzard that he trims off or cuts apart to make two different skewers. The first gizzard skewer is where it’s just the red meaty part of the gizzard and the other is a fatty gizzard skin negima skewer. All the various trimming experience came from trial and error to figure out what’s the best way to enjoy the parts of the gizzard.
These gizzard skewers are placed on top of basil leaves to add a fresh aroma to the somewhat gamey smell of the organ that’s part of a chicken’s digestive tract. That’s definitely another behind the scene Kodawari, and an original one as far as we know.
Cleaning the Liver and Heart
Liver from the butchery comes connected to the heart. This fatty connective area is cut off and used as part of the Hatsumoto or fatty artery skewers. It was amazing to handle liver this fresh where the meat is firm, not bloody and soft like the ones I get at the Whole Foods deli.
Daisuke brings out his small Honesuki chicken knife and starts cutting through the livers. He also separates the red and white livers. The lighter white one is the creamier fatty liver.
Kodawari Tip: When making the liver skewers, he adds a small piece of the hard skin he previously trimmed off the gizzards on the top. He does this so that the top of the liver does not touch the hot metal rod on the grill. After grilling, he removes this gizzard skin piece so that the first taste in your mouth is that of the sweet and creamy grilled liver. I don’t know any Yakitori shops that do this sacrifice meat method. That’s thoughtfulness Kodawari.
Yakitoribaka Style Hearts
Daisuke skewers the hearts in his original special way, where it's cut in half and skewered by overlapping the fatty parts inside so it cooks from the juicy part inside out.
I was really looking forward to seeing the Yakitoribaka style heart being skewered live in person. It was actually a video he posted of him doing this special style heart that made me want to learn from him. In that video he mentioned that he hoped to spread his original heart skewering style around Japan. At my first popup in Oakland, I wanted to spread it even outside of Japan and I made this style heart and called it YakitoriBaka heart on the menu.
Trimming Excess Parts Off the Teba
Daisuke showed me various tips on filleting the Teba (wing) but I’m not sure if I’ll ever incorporate it in my Yakitori as I prefer to serve the wings whole. However, there was one Kodawari aspect that stood out to me. He trims off a fatty part that sticks out at the top of the wing. The reason is that any parts that stick out will burn quicker and turns into bitter char while the rest of the wing is still cooking. By cutting this part off beforehand, you get an evenly cooked Teba wing.
Also to ensure every skewer is evenly centered, Daisuke intensely slaps the Teba skewer onto the cutting board to make sure it is flat on the bottom for even weight distribution. Kodawari slap action!
The Perfect Yakitori Skin
Using strips of thigh skin, Daisuke makes the most elegant Kawa skewers I’ve ever seen in my life. Not going to spoil all the secrets here on how it’s made, as I strongly urge you to just visit Yakitori Moe West and try this skin before everyone else's.
Daisuke studied how skins from the different part of the chicken cook on the grill and determined on a molecular level (at least in theory) the best way thigh chicken skin should be folded, skewered, and grilled.
When making skin skewers, it’s important that you have to consider the best way to eat it, which is to be extra crispy on the outside and juicy in the inside. He folds the skin in multiple ways and with his technique, he figured out a way so that the skin can slowly fry itself in its own sweating fat while on the grill. What's also crazy is since this visit back in October, I have seen him post another technique for skewering skin. He is constantly innovating to figure out the best way to serve individual parts of the chicken.
Seseri - The Last Step to Mastering Yakitori
Long strips of neck meat which Daisuke trimmed off the neck bone were aligned on the cutting board and trimmed into 3-4 cm strips.
These strips are then skewered to make one of the more special skewers at Yakitori shops. Trimming the meat off the neck bone is very tricky.
At this moment like Jedi-Master, Daisuke proclaimed to learn to make a good neck skewer, you must. Only then will you have reached the master level of Yakitori.
That was my first time hearing that, but upon my return to my kitchen, I began working on my neck game.
Tsukune - Where Everything Comes Together
He has been doing all the prep work by himself until around noon when other team members started to arrive, including the shop owner Mr. Abe. At this point, Daisuke’s assistant began to take the various saved parts of meat from the broken chicken including breast, tail, butt skin, and wing drumettes and placed them into a meat grinder for making Tsukune.
When I asked about what’s the secret to making a good Tsukune, he jokingly said to squeeze with care and wish positive energy into each skewer. Basically, if you aren’t putting any love or care into the food you’re serving to customers, it’s not going to taste good. He then seriously mentioned that it’s important to make sure the surface of the Tsukune is smooth because any cracks or craters will be spots where the flavorful meat juices will spill out.
Just like the attention and care he puts into his Tsukune and other skewers, Daisuke was super generous and attentive with me showing me all the details of his pre-dinner prep. When I originally connected with him, I mentioned that as Yakitoriguy my goal was to spread Kodawari Yakitori like the kind he makes to those in America.
The fact that he willingly showed me his craft during his busy moments of pre-dinner prep shows how much he makes Yakitori for the love of the craft and to give to the community of cooks and customers who enjoy the cuisine. Money and accolades are a bonus but we believe cooking should always be about the smiles and happiness good food brings out in people as they gather together in the kitchen and at the dining table.
Thank you Yakitoribaka for showing the community your Kodawari methods! Just like the love and positive energy that goes into each Tsukune skewer, I hope all my readers can really appreciate the immense detail and work that Kodawari Yakitori masters put in to each skewer.
Think about that extra care as you savor your next delicious Yakitori skewer. Also, I hope the details on Yakitori making demonstrated today can help you distinguish between good Kodawari Yakitori versus some others that are done with very little care. This goes with all cuisines, but every paying customer deserves the best from chefs and you should always demand for the best possible Yakitori in your city.
-Read Next -
Chapter 2: Kappabashi Kitchen District and Yakitoribaka's Yakitori at Yakitori Moe West Full Review
The purpose of my last trip to Japan in October was to study Yakitori in the country that birthed the cuisine. I wanted to understand what Yakitori looks, smells, sounds, and tastes like when executed at the highest level in the motherland.
Few months prior to this trip as I was learning Yakitori on my own, I asked a friend who was visiting Japan to search for and bring back a book called Yakitori Technique. This highly rated comprehensive cookbook features 鳥しき-Torishiki and あやむ屋-Ayamuya, two of Japan’s several Michelin-rated Yakitori shops showing how they breakdown, skewer, and grill their chickens at their shops.
Because it’s so detailed, I have been obsessively reading this book to absorb every word on how the masters do their Yakitori, right down to things like what temperature or time to cook the different parts of the chicken for the best flavor per part. Because I was visiting Tokyo, I wanted to visit one of the featured restaurants in the book, Torishiki operated by Master Ikegawa Yoshiteru.
Reservations for Master Ikegawa’s Torishiki are hard to get as they fill up months in advance so I was unable to visit the shop during my last training trip in October. However, I was able to sit down at the the next best thing, Toriyoshi - Nakameguro, where Master Ikegawa formally trained for 8 years before opening Torishiki.
From what I have read, Toriyoshi is also the shop where New York’s Michelin Star Yakitori shop Torishin’s Master Shu Ikeda trained at as well, so the place has to be legit!
Toriyoshi is located in Nakameguro, a more residential part of Tokyo than a more commercial area like Shibuya. However even the residential neighborhoods in Tokyo are bustling with commercial life, especially with an abundance of quality dining options.
As you walk about 5 minutes from the 中目黒 - Nakameguro train station you come across the wooden sliding doors and a sign that says 鳥よし - Toriyoshi. Boxes of real Kishu Binchotan are stacked up front, so you know you’re at a restaurant serving quality Yakitori!
Slide open Toriyoshi’s doors and step inside to what feels like an Edomae Sushi restaurant. Clean and bright with natural food decor all around with glass refrigerated cases displaying all the pre-made Yakitori skewers. All the workers in the center wearing white attire with headbands, just like Master Ikegawa. Make sure to hang your jacket on the coat hangers behind you, you’re going to need all the upper body room to enjoy the Yakitori and drinks!
There were about 4-5 grill masters working in the center, each designated to serve the 5-6 person section the bar seats.
As you sit down, it’s customary to be asked what you'd like to drink. I always ask for the “nama” meaning raw which is fresh beer from the tap, usually Sapporo or Asahi. Shochu is also very popular. Ordering hot green tea is acceptable if you don’t drink alcohol. Along with the drinks, the server handed right over the glass counter a dish of simple nukazuke - pickled cucumbers and daikon - as well as a dish of grated daikon with soy sauce and a quail yolk on top.
From there you can order off what’s written on the slat boards on the wall or just start pointing at the skewers in the glass display. Honestly you can’t go wrong with any skewer here, but I've created a skewer by skewer guide and review below to help with some of your choices.
Some skewers were presented individually, some came in multiples, some skewers came out before another one I ordered previously. I guess it just depends on what comes off the grill first. Also because popular or limited skewers like Sori (Chicken oysters) might run out, you may want to order them first.
Kashiwa and Tsukune
かしわ-Kashiwa is a skewer that consists of thigh and breast meat, both with skin attached on the meat. In this version two juicy thigh pieces were skewered on top and the breast pieces was placed on the bottom of the skewer. However some shops may alternate thigh-breast-thigh on their Kashiwa skewers. I don’t usually use breast meat at Brewzakaya because it’s generally a bland cut, but when served along with the thigh meat along with the skin on the same skewer it was enjoyable.
The つくね-Tsukune (ground meat) were smaller balls than many other shops, but this made it very easy to bite off the skewers. A very simple Tsukune, that’s not heavy. Easy way to start the meal.
Next up was the “carpaccio” which is Toriyoshi’s take on Torisashi (Chicken Sashimi). These cold slices of raw breast are served two ways at Toriyoshi and I ordered both. One with freshly grated wasabi and another one with grated parmesan cheese and olive oil. I prefer the standard fresh wasabi version as it was more refreshing and went well with the rest of the meal.
さび焼き-Sabiyaki is another name for grilled sasami (tender) that has wasabi on top (hence “sabi”). This Sabiyaki was still a bit pink inside, meaning it was perfectly cooked for mune or sasami Yakitori. Nice and tender. Also just the right amount of wasabi, which was rubbed on the chicken with the chef’s fingers, which surprised me at first. But since sushi chefs use their fingers for putting wasabi on Nigiri, I’m open to this.
Kawa and Sunagimo
皮- Kawa is skin. Rather than longer strips these were layers of smaller pieces so it came off cleanly from the skewers. Very good smoke, however I think they pre-boil it a bit, as it was more chewy than crispy. Pre-boiling the skin makes it easier to skewer, but it also cooks out some of the essential fats. To achieve a good extra crispy Kawa you slowly grill the skewer to let all the fat render from the inside out. I personally prefer to eat and serve non-boiled skin for my Brewzakaya guests to get this extra crispy skin.
Along with the Kawa skewer came out the 砂肝-Sunagimo - "sand guts". This is the gizzard, a digestive organ in birds where gravel is kept inside to help breakdown seeds since birds don’t have teeth to chew their food.
This crunchy skewer is definitely one of my favorites. Especially when it’s fresh it can be perfectly cooked with a pink center which keeps the crispy gizzard texture yet is not dry and rubbery.
軟骨-Nankotsu means cartilage, and usually refers to the soft chest cartilage. This is crunchy and smokey. Nankotsu is always a delight to order as you only get only one chest cartilage per whole chicken. A skewer with 4-5 cartilage pieces can be limited, so make sure to order before they run out!
ぼんじり-Bonjiri is the triangular shaped tail of the chicken. Mostly cartilage and fats, the tail skewer is crispy on the outside and fatty on the inside. There is also the tail bone inside which is crunchy. Awesome!
白玉-Shira (shiro) Tama means white balls. Usually on the menu as Uzura, quail eggs for Yakitori are marinated in soy or tare and are brown, but these eggs at Toriyoshi were plain white and just salted before being grilled. This alternate style is clean and good too!
The 手羽-Teba chicken wings are split and filleted. They were perfectly cooked and easy to bite off the skewers. I personally am a fan of Teba to be cooked whole and not filleted. It takes longer to cook but the meat is much juicier inside with crispy skin outside.
The ソリ-Sori or the chicken oysters are the most tender part of the chicken thighs. The word Sori is short for Soriresu (French: Sot-l'y-laisse) which translates to only the fool leaves it behind. These were big juicy pieces and intensely satisfying to enjoy each bite with my beers.
げんこつ-Genkotsu, also known as Hiza Nankotsu, is the knee cartilage and the thigh meat around it. You get the chewy and crunchy bite from the cartilage as well as the juicy thight meat so it’s definitely a fun skewer. Make sure to order it before they run out!
Dipped in tare, the レバ- Leba here is fatty white and is very creamy. With fresh liver, you don’t have to cook it for a long time, so you don’t get the iron heavy flakey texture found in dry and overcooked liver. If you never liked liver or tried it before, I recommend to order it here at Toriyoshi where it’s executed perfectly, and the tare here is delicious.
Shokudo and Hatsumoto
The 食道-Shokudo is the esophagus which is taken out from the chicken when removing the digestive tract. This was the first time trying esophagus. Very fatty and soft.
The ハツモト-Hatsumoto is the artery/blood vessels part that’s separated from the muscular part of the heart. You can see the artery sticking out the side in the photo. The Hatsumoto renders in its own fat and so it is a bit crunchy and chewy but because it's part of the heart, it has a nice red meat-like flavor.
Our group was already full from the many skewers so we did not opt for a shime rice dish which is how you normally would close off a Yakitori meal. Instead we opted for a non meat skewer and went with 銀杏-Ginnan. These gingko nuts are similar to eating roasted chestnuts and are a bit starchy like biting into a potato, but it is not mushy and has a chewy bite, similar to roasted garlic. Lightly salted and when mixed with the tare on the plate, the Ginnan was a nice clean finish to this big meal.
Okaikei Onegai Shimasu! Check Please!
At Toriyoshi, the cooks keep track of your skewers using a system of colored plastic chips which they add into a basket in front of your table every time you order a skewer. It is enigmatic as a customer observing it, but it appears to be a very efficient system as our assigned cook quickly sorted through the chips and the total bill came out quickly. From photos of Torishiki, Master Ikegawa uses this method too to keep count.
A Must Visit!
It was such a pleasure to enjoy a meal at Toriyoshi. Clean, fresh, upscale, yet energetic and the crowd diverse from young businessman to families, and tourists. The restaurant is worth the 15-30 minute wait. Get there early as some of the rare skewers may run out.
The grilling masters/cook were friendly and explained anything whenever I asked. The quality of the food, the range of the skewers, and the atmosphere is for sure a step up from anything in the states. I was also excited to experience the similarities with Master Ikegawa's Torishiki methods since he trained at Toriyoshi. The best part for me was being able to closely observe classic Yakitori cooking executed at a high level of sophistication, an experience which definitely has contributed to the growth of my own Yakitori for Brewzakaya.
I give it a 4.5/5 Yakitoriguy Stars!
For my second installment in the Kodawari Stories of Japan, I’m covering Ramen in Japan. More specifically Ramen in Sapporo, my hometown, and other nearby cities in Hokkaido, the northern island prefecture of Japan which is also an area famous for Ramen.
Why am I writing about Ramen if my passion is Yakitori? To start, Tori Ramen made with broth from simmered chicken carcass is often served as a Shime (closer) dish at Yakitori shops.
Second, like sushi, Ramen is one of the most influential Kodawari food from Japan that people passionately love to eat and cook worldwide. Ramen was born from the Kodawari of Care to provide sustenance for the everyday people by being a cheap and quick hot meal. In addition, when you eat at the best Ramen shop, you get to experience the Kodawari of Simplicity and the awe-inspiring craftsmanship towards making the most perfect bowl of Ramen.
But the more personal reason why I’m sharing this story on Ramen is because for the first time in years my father joined me for a trip to Japan and we ate 7 bowls of Ramen in 5 days. I’m obsessed with Yakitori but my father and I enjoy eating Ramen in Japan because it’s quick, cheap, and really delicious compared to what you can get here in the states.
Kodawari of Care: Feeding People Through Hot Ramen
Whether in the form of a fresh bowl of Ramen at food stands or in the form of packaged instant noodles, Japan experienced a Ramen boom in the 1950s after the war. Similar to using pork and whole onion to keep prices low with Muroran Yakitori (Kodawari Stories Part 1) for the working class, Ramen grew in popularity in Japan to meet the demands for a quick and cheap hot meal. Noodle dishes were ideal because imported wheat flour was more abundant and cheaper than rice due to Japan’s lack of resources right after the war.
Aji no Sanpei -味の三平-
During this time in Hokkaido, Miso Ramen was invented at 味の三平 Aji no Sanpei. By incorporating miso paste that’s thick and deep in umami as the main flavor instead of a shio or shoyu tare, extra sustenance and calories could be added to Ramen while maintaining its status as an affordable quick meal. This led to a Miso Ramen boom in Sapporo, and the birth of the famous Sumire/Junren Ramen shops in the 60s, which influences Sapporo Ramen even now the disciples from Sumire/Junren chains continue to open up highly ranked Ramen shops for their own.
It is at a Sumire 暖簾分け “Noren Wake” shop (meaning started by disciples and approved by the parent shop. See below for further explanation) called 八乃木 Hachinoki where I was slapped in the face (mouth) with a unique Kodawari feature of piping hot soup. Hachinoki is a highly ranked Ramen shop in the 2019 Hokkaido Ramen Walker guide (a catalog of nearly every highly ranked Ramen shop in Hokkaido) and everything was delightful.
The Miso Ramen bowl I ordered is topped with evenly cut crunchy onions, tender chashu, warm sweet bean sprouts, crisp menma bamboo, and bits of flavorful ground pork. However, it was the hot soup that remained hot even until the last sip that took me by surprise and left a lasting impression.
Junren - 純蓮-
Later that evening I visited Junren, one of the the historical big names in Sapporo Ramen. At Junren, I changed it up from the house special Miso Ramen and ordered the Shoyu Ramen, but there too, the soup was piping hot until the last sip. It’s not my first time having Ramen in Japan but I only experienced this hot soup at Junren and Hachinoki (which is from the same Junren/Sumire lineage). How did they do that? Why is Ramen from Junren/Sumire so hot?
I found out the big Kodawari factor from my Sapporo native friend Ryo who was eating at Junren with me. Hokkaido is the northern Island of Japan and is cold in the fall and winter months. To help the working class folks enjoy a hot meal that stays warm, there is a layer of hot “abura” (oil) on top of the soup to prevent the dish from cooling down. Later I checked in with Mike Satinover, The Ramen Lord (@Ramenover), my go-to expert for all things Ramen, and he explained that the abura is from lard (not oil) that’s cooked together with the veggies like bean sprouts and mixed with the soup directly in a hot iron wok.
You may have observed Ramen being plated together in the kitchen where it’s usually just strained hot noodles placed in a bowl, poured over with hot soup from a pot, and then the toppings are added. Cooking the vegetables with the lard along with the soup and pouring this hot mix into the bowl to keep the whole dish enjoyable and hot until the last sip is the extra Kodawari aspect of Sapporo Ramen from Junren/Sumire.
While Aji no Sanpei may claim to have invented Miso Ramen, Sumire/Junren refined it with extra Kodawari steps that make the dish special. The Sumire/Junren brand name and their offshoots are really popular in Japan and companies have packaged their flavors for instant Ramen that’s sold nationwide. This is a true example that demonstrates cooking honest solid food out of care and Kodawari will lead to a loyal following.
To read more about the interesting and maybe confusing history of Sumire/Junren naming of the shops see Ramen Lord’s post as he is definitely an expert on the history of Sapporo ramen.
Kodawari of Care in other Hokkaido Ramen
In the same time the Sapporo Miso Ramen boomed for its purpose to provide a flavorful sustenance in a quick meal, another Ramen shop in Hokkaido added original spices of their own and invented the Curry Ramen.
Aji no Daiou - 味の大王-
During the mid 60’s, Ramen Shop Aji no Daiou developed this Curry Ramen in the city of Tomakomai about an hour south of Sapporo. Similar to the new hot and hearty Miso Ramen, the Kodawari point in this Ramen was to have spicy (by Japanese standards, so it’s pretty mild) flavors of curry help warm the body during the cold winters of Hokkaido. Bean sprouts, chashu, and Hokkaido wakame seaweed top their classic Curry Ramen which I definitely would love to see executed in the states.
Kodawari of Simplicity: Restraint and Refinement
The beauty of Japanese food is in the Kodawari for achieving refinement even in the simplest of dishes. While Western cooking focusses on adding more ingredients and complexity to create something grand, Japanese cooking is focussed on doing more with less and letting the ingredients shine on their own (素材を活かすSozai Wo Ikasu).
The best example of Sozai Wo Ikasu is sushi in Japan compared with sushi in America. Think of the Maguro Tuna Nigiri in the Jiro Dreams of Sushi documentary. The best tuna fillet from Tsukiji market (now Toyosu market) is precisely sliced in a single stroke with a special single bevelled knife that is masterfully crafted like a Katana sword. This bite-sized Maguro slice is quickly placed on top of perfectly cooked and vinegar seasoned rice cultivated from the best rice farm. Squeezed into nigiri at just the right pressure and speed to not compress the rice or raise the temperature of the fish, Jiro’s body movements are perfected from years of repetition. Just fresh Maguro, seasoned rice, maybe a brush of soy sauce, plus solid refined technique.
On the opposite spectrum visualize some Rainbow Rolls or the Caterpillar Rolls with an explosion of ingredients, flavors, and colors from the abundant garnish and toppings. So much happening on one plate, yet in terms of complexity as a dish a Rainbow Roll is easily approachable enough that it is often taught in a single sushi making class session. In this form of execution, the freshness of the fish or how precisely you slice it is not as important as the pure Maguro Nigiri. Roughly cut, previously frozen fish can be uplifted with extra toppings such as tempura crisps, tobiko, and spicy mayo sauce. This is “Sushi” that’s popular in American Japanese restaurants. You might argue that it’s an unfair comparison, but compare the Instagram food photos between diners in Japan and diners and what’s trending on #foodporn or search for Sushi on Yelp and you start seeing what Western restaurant trends and the Western palate is like.
However palates are evolving and films like Jiro Dreams of Sushi or global food documenting celebrity chefs like David Chang and the late Anthony Bourdain have been contributing to more exposure and awareness. This is why I’m excited to continue to push Kodawari Yakitori in America. People just need these Kodawari differences between Japanese and Western cooking pointed out to them so they can pursue something different than the current status quo.
Itadakimasu - The Culture of Purity on the Dining Table
The Kodawari for purity and refining simplicity has its deep roots in the Japanese culture that focuses on appreciating, respecting, and worshipping the spiritual life that goes into everything. All over Japan there are temples, shrines, and festivals dedicated to the Kami or gods that represent everything; animals, trees, rivers, lightning (More Spirited Away gods than sexy Thor).
This Japanese tradition of appreciating everything in life is apparent at the dining table too. Before every meal, the custom is to put your hands in prayer and say “Itadakimasu” いただきます. Meaning “I’m about to partake in this meal” but really is more about saying “thank you for those who cooked it, to those animals or plants who gave up its life, and I’m grateful I’m about to have this meal.” Go to any restaurant in Japan, and you will most likely see a group put their hands together and say Itadakimasu, right after a quick photo of their food. Got to do it for the Gram!
Refinement and Purity Kodawari in Ramen
Japanese Ramen Noodle Lab Q
When simplicity is refined you get sophistication, and that’s what you can experience at Ramen Noodle Lab Q located in Odori Sapporo. I seeked this shop known for their refined modern Kodawari Shoyu Ramen. Because heavy pork based Ramen is popular in the American Ramen scene, Shoyu Ramen is an afterthought on the menu in the states. Shoyu Ramen in America is just one dimension; salty from the soy sauce but bland with no additional layers of taste. I was looking forward to this highly rated execution at Noodle Lab Q to blow me away and believe in the potential of great Shoyu Ramen. And it definitely did!
I ordered their famous Shoyu Ramen with the extra chashu. I also ordered the binchotan chicken on the side as this restaurant switches into a Yakitori restaurant at night. First off, just juicy chicken + salt + binchotan = wow. What a start to set the tone of the Japanese refined simplicity Kodawari.
On to the Ramen. Starting with the presentation of this bowl, you can just experience refinement through restraint. Topped with gradients of pink in the Chashu, bright green Mitsuba leaf, with a peek of the noodles and the dark but clear soup through a gap between the Chashu slices.
This Chashu set blew my mind too. The server carefully describes the 3 different Chashu of shoulder, loin, and leg each with slightly different tenderness. Below the pork Chashu was the 4th Chashu made with Kombu dashi simmered chicken breast which was extra soft and packed with earthy spices; Sansho maybe.
The noodles are easy to pick up and slurp because the chef makes sure to pull it up and neatly folds it over, not just dumped in the middle of the bowl from the strainer. And the soup, made with Tare using 8 different soy sauces and Kombu is balanced with the chicken broth using 4 different types of chicken. All of this effort resulted in a soup with simplicity and complexity you’d expect from fine French Consomme. Perfect, just perfect.
The beautiful presentation along with the complex flavors and textures from the toppings, noodles, and soup, is sophistication that has developed with the Kodawari soul and evolution of Ramen. As of now, you can’t find a bowl of Ramen like this in the states especially for 1300 Yen (around $12) tips tax included. The owner has dreams of opening a Ramen shop in America. Yes, we need you now!
Other Kodawari in Ramen:
Hakodate Noodle Ajisai -函館麺厨房あじさい-
The Shio Ramen at Ajisai, a small chain based out of Hakodate has been around since 1930. Being that Hakodate is a port city in Hokkaido, the ultra clear and clean broth made with sea salt, Hokkaido Kombu, pork, and chicken represents the old school Kodawari that still holds well with age even nearly a century later. For those who’re familiar with the House of Prime Rib in San Francisco, or Katz Deli in New York, this experience is similar, the taste and experience just takes you back in time but doesn’t feel dated. And because black pepper goes with salt, you need to try their special pepper oil to help compliment the dish to preference.
Mendokoro Maruha Rise - 麺処まるは RISE-
At Mendokoro Maruha Rise, their speciality is a scallop based Ramen with Kodawari Chashu. At shops that are proud of their Kodawari chashu, you can always order more, often served on the side. For the Scallop Ramen, the fragrant aroma of shellfish hits you hard with each sip of the soup. However, because it’s a lighter broth, the Kodawari point is in their use of earthy noodles which incorporates soba (buckwheat) flour.
Shirakaba Sansou - 白樺山荘 -
At Shirakaba Sansou, every table at every one of it’s chain shops comes with a basket of hard boiled eggs. Like bread, these eggs are free to consume so you have something to eat while you wait for your Ramen. It’s this kind of small touch of hospitality that’s the care point of Kodawari. Just don’t eat too much egg, you still need to leave room for their hearty Miso Ramen.
And just like you start the meal by gratefully saying “Itadakimasu”, you end the meal with your hands together and say “Gochisousama” ごちそうさま or “Gochisousama deshita!” ごちそうさまでした Meaning Thank you, I am grateful, and satisfied with your great meal. The ramen bowls at some shops had messages printed at the bottom for those who finished the entire dish. This is another Kodawari experience of eating ramen.
The Kodawari I experienced eating Ramen in Hokkaido has definitely influenced my Yakitori cooking style upon my return from my trip to Japan. My biggest takeaway is to focus more on refinement and simplicity which defines the Japanese culinary way. Although I always incorporated Kodawari in my dishes already, my standards toward the attention to detail and being disciplined about doing more with less have further increased after eating the Ramen and Yakitori in Japan.
However I still grew up in America so my Yakitori does include my own Western (or global) influences on top of my Japanese identity. I believe there’s a new point of culmination where both Japanese Kodawari and the melting pot of Western culinary flavors (South American, Southeast Asian, Mediterranean etc.) can merge together in harmony.
Ramen evolved in Japan through the thoughtful use of local ingredients and necessary tweaks to meet the needs of customers and circumstances in that generation. Just like Miso Ramen and Curry Ramen developed as new ideas to THOUGHTFULLY serve the needs of the customers, I believe I can do that with Kodawari California Yakitori utilizing local ingredients and refining my technique to let the local and carefully selected ingredients shine by elevating it’s distinct strengths (“sozoi wo ikasu”). I use Chicken from Central California, and incorporate a variety of California grown citrus, Avocados, and Gilroy Garlic because it just tastes better when it’s local and I want to graciously support the local growers that provide for these ingredients.
Food is a medium for a conversation between the chef and the customers. It’s a non-verbal emotional dialogue of flavors, smells, sounds of cooking reciprocated back by body language like smiles, giggles, nods, wide open eyes, and even joyful hands in the air dancing.
You appreciate amazing food, and as the chef we enjoy seeing you taking in every bite of you food with a smile. Even if you don’t remember the word “Gochisousama”, I want to make sure you feel the spirit of that phrase and you’re grinning inside-out as you complete the meal. And just for that, I’ll continue to work hard in the kitchen.
If you have any questions, or feedback about the Ramen in this post always feel free to reach out to me at email@example.com!
Addendum: What is Noren Wake 暖簾分け?
Noren 暖簾 is the curtain type signage that's in front of shops in Japan. It also serves as the open/closed signs you see in businesses in the states. A wooden bar holding the Noren is put up when the shop is open, and taken down and stored inside to signify that the business is done for the day.
The term 暖簾分け Norenwake (Wah-Kay) refers to when disciples of a shop decides to go independent with the lessons he/she learned with approval from the master. The influences of techniques, operations, or menu items from the original shop can clearly be seen in the new shop. The resemblance in the Ramen between Hachinoki and Junren or Sumire and Saimi is because they are all from the similar lineage. Some shops may go as far as leaving the name of the master shop on the side of their own Noren to signify its roots.
This past October, I took a trip to Japan with two important motives so I can develop further as a Yakitori chef. The first motive was to eat at various Yakitori shops in Japan for inspiration and train with Yakitori masters. The second motive was to experience the こだわり"KODAWARI" (the care, passion, and attention to detail) found pretty much everywhere in Japan whether it’s in food (sushi, ramen, even donuts), drinks (green tea, sake, whisky), consumer products (electronics, kitchen tools, high-tech toilets), or even in the customer service (flight attendants, hotel staff, monks at temples).
Over the next few blog posts I’ll be sharing a variety of stories on ramen, drinks, and even giant robots that reveal the Kodawari culture of Japan. For this post, I'm starting with the first Kodawari discovery of Japan; Hokkaido Yakitori which is the inspiration for my Hokkaido Negima I serve at Brewzakaya events.
The first Yakitori shop I got to try in Japan during this trip was Yakitori no Ippei (焼き鳥の一平) a popular chain in Hokkaido which serves Yakitori that is definitely distinguishable from Yakitori in other regions of Japan or in the states.
History of Muroran Yakitori
Yakitori no Ippei has its humble roots in Muroran during the Meiji era in 1909. Muroran was one of the first major port cities that led to the modernization of Hokkaido, which until that point was populated by the indigenous Ainu people. This city became a trade and cultural portal between Hokkaido and Honshu (the mainland) during the 1800’s.
Because Muroran is a port city that’s populated by blue collared workers from the steel mills, shipyards, coal and cement factories, izakaya dishes had to be accessible for these diners by being quick, fresh, and cheap.
The Unique Kodawari Details of Muroran Yakitori
Kodawari 1: Pork -For the purpose of serving fresh and cheap bites, Muroran Yakitori uses pork instead of chicken. Considering Yakitori means grilled chicken, it’s definitely confusing that it’s still called Yakitori and not Yakiton, with “ton” meaning pork like in tonkotsu or tonkatsu. Because pork was more accessible in the region and cheaper to raise especially during the resources depleted world war era, grilling this alternate meat allowed the working class people to enjoy “Yakitori” in Muroran. On Yakitori no Ippei’s menu, we see this historical significance but it's also mentioned that they continue to use pork because of its rich texture and flavors. Although pork is this shop’s best seller, many chicken dishes are available too.
Kodawari 2: Whole Onions- Similar to the use of pork as a cheaper and more abundant source of meat, Muroran yakitori uses yellow onions instead of green onions commonly found in the negima in Honshu. Yellow onions provides a natural sweetness and a nice crunchy texture from the thick slices. Onions are even placed in other Yakitori skewers at Ippei such as in the skin, liver, and gizzards.
Kodawari 3: Karashi Mustard - The use of hot karashi yellow mustard as the main condiment. While there's a variety of sauces and spices you can put on Yakitori such as ume plum, shichimi, salt, lemon, or yuzu kosho, Muroran Yakitori uses spicy yellow mustard. Their kodawari reason is that the mustard further enhances the rich flavors of pork and other fatty skewers.
Kodawari 4: Legendary Sauce - A century old tare sauce. The base of all Yakitori sauce is sake, sugar, and soy sauce. However by dipping the meat and vegetable skewers into the sauce as part of the cooking process, the juice drippings add to the flavors of the sauce. By adding new virgin tare into a container of old tare every night, Yakitori shops can maintain sauces that are multiple generations old. In Yakitori no Ippei’s case, their sauce is over a hundred years old! My sauce is currently at 10 months old. I hope to one day have a deep old sauce too to serve to my customers.
The Yakitori no Ippei shop I visited was in the downtown Susukino area of Sapporo but there are several location across southern Hokkaido. Although in Japanese you can see the other locations on their website.
Other Dishes to try at Yakitori no Ippei
Raw chicken breast sashimi. However they cooked the outside a bit here. Served with soy sauce and wasabi. Torisashi refers to all types of tori (chicken) sashimi. Other shops in Japan serve other parts such as heart, gizzard, and even liver (tastes like uni) as sashimi.
Kawa - Skin
The Muroran way with tare, onion, and karashi mustard. The crunch of the onions in contrast to the crispy skin was very satisfying.
Sasami with Ume
Sasami (chicken tender) grilled with just salt (no tare) topped with tangy pickled plum sauce was a nice palate cleansing change to the other Hokkaido style skewers centered around the tare and mustard.
Yakionigiri and Tori Zousui
For the shime closer round, I went with the Tori Zosui (chicken and egg rice porridge) and the Yakionigiri with the butter. Hokkaido is famous for the dairy farms, so having the fresh butter on the crispy grilled rice was a no brainer. The Tori Zosui is a very simple chicken broth with dashi and is very comforting at the end of the meal.
Kodawari is Contagious
Eat around and you will easily find the influence of Muroran Yakitori in other Hokkaido Yakitori shops. Whether it was the use of whole onions or karashi mustard, it’s amazing to see how food trends can spread and creates an identity for that region.
Kodawari brings out the Best of Those Around You
Whether or not resources are limited such as in old town Muroran, using what’s available in the best way to serve the customer is one of the biggest example of Kodawari practiced by chefs in Japan. Through eating the unique Yakitori in Hokkaido I got to understand that first hand. This lesson has strongly influenced me to take advantage of local ingredients and flavors that make up California cuisine.
I already use avocados, local meyer lemons, and incorporate American salts in my dishes, but I wouldn’t rule out Mexican flavors or other ethnic influences in future Yakitori dishes in America. I use lime as an alternative to traditional lemon in many of my plates and if you think about it, Yuzu-Kosho is basically a Japanese Salsa Verde. How about some Crispy Yaki Pollo Skin Tacos? Maybe that could be the next big food truck trend!
The next public Brewzakaya event is December 8th at Itani Ramen in Oakland!
Come checkout a 7 round Izakaya dinner featuring crowd favorite menu items off the grill. I'll be cooking with Itani Ramen chef-owner Kyle Itani in the kitchen, finishing the dinner with a collab dish, a chicken yaki-ramen soup for the "shime" closer round!
And just like neighborhood Izakayas in Japan, we'll be offering a special "nomihoudai" option too, meaning all you can drink of various beverages that pairs with Yakitori like cold mug Asahi draft and oolong chuuhais during the duration of the dinner!
The event will be held in the private and fun Genki room, featuring amazing Japanese print artwork from @fuji1kenobe.
Space is limited so RSVP now by calling: (510) 788-7489 or emailing: INFO@ITANIRAMEN.COM
Looking forward to meeting friends and fans of Brewzakaya!
BREWZAKAYA POP-UP MENU
$65 PER PERSON
Optional $45 nomihoudai*
Miso Avocado – 24 hr. miso + mirin marinade, meyer lemon
Tori Hamu – sous-vide chicken breast, olive oil, peppercorn
Bacon Tomato - kumato mini tomatoes, hickory smoked bacon, kewpie mayo, ichimi
Momokawa - grilled chicken thigh, lime, salt
Enoki Karaage - soy + sesame marinated enoki mushrooms, fried in a mochiko rice flour, matcha salt, yuzu salt
Miso Eggplant - grilled Japanese eggplant, garlic miso
YakitoriBaka Heart - chicken heart, shichimi togarashi, sansyo. Special skewer technique by Chef YakitoriBaka, Tokyo
Hokkaido Negima - chicken thigh, onion, tare sauce, karashi mustard
Teba - grilled chicken wings, lime, yuzu kosho
Miso Pickles - radish, carrots, cucumbers
Shiso Maki – shiso wrapped chicken thigh, ume sauce, salt cured shirasu sardines
Chicken Skin - breast, butt + shoulder skin, aloha sea salt, meyer lemon
Yaki Ramen Chicken Soup - grilled ramen noodles, chicken bone shio soup, shiso, yuzu, bonito, tempura crisps
For the Road
Chocolate Truffle To-Go - ganache with cocoa + matcha powder
CALL: (510) 788-7489
*Nomihodai - We can not and will not knowingly sell or serve alcohol to any individual who is drunk or intoxicated.
Today I’m very excited to launch the Brewzakaya website and share about my new journey in life. The purpose of this site is to capture my journey of learning about the history, culture, and cuisine of Izakaya dining. From Yakitori and other small plates to sake and other Japanese drinks I hope to share my passion of Japanese food culture with friends, family, and the online community.
On this site I will be posting stories about the food and drinks found at Izakayas as well as the masters (the Japanese way of saying head chef) of these establishments. Because I believe everyone should be able to eat good food, I will also be posting recipes and other cooking related content in hopes that anyone following my work can recreate some of my favorite dishes in the comforts of your own home.
So what is Brewzakaya?
Like sake or beer, good things that can be enjoyed with family and friends are slowly brewed over time with great Kodawari (meaning care and attention to detail). Brewzakaya is my dream of brewing an Izakaya from scratch. I’m working on this dream by hosting Izakaya parties and pop-ups where people can come together and enjoy a relaxed night with my Kodawari Yakitori and Japanese cocktails.
Maybe one day I’ll be running my own physical Izakaya or possibly multiple establishments around the world. However I’m not thinking too far out yet because Brewzakaya isn’t really just about my desires and isn’t tied to a physical location. Already, friends have started Yakitori parties on their own based on recipes, techniques, and cooking tools I’ve shared with them. Brewzakaya has the potential to be part of a global movement where Izakaya dishes can be enjoyed by everyone anywhere. And that’s a dream I’m super thrilled to be a part of.
Why am I passionate about Izakaya and Yakitori culture?
Izakaya simply is the Japanese word for a drinking establishment that serves food. Whether at a restaurant, pub, or a party at home, coming together with friends and family to enjoy food and drinks is something every culture has their version of, and anyone should be able to get behind.
Yakitori is one of my favorite food items along with ramen and tacos. Ever since my 2018 New Years resolution to learn how to make Yakitori, I have eaten Yakitori at least few times a week, every week, and I have not missed a beat. The smoky smell from the char, the sizzling sound of the oozing juices, and the flavors of the perfectly skewered chicken in my mouth is something I obsess about everyday. When executed at the highest level like a complex bowl of ramen or a precisely pressed nigiri, the perfect Yakitori has the potential to be a dish that will blow the minds of any diner within the first bite of the skewer.
I’m still new on this endeavor but I’ve been eating at delicious Izakayas and meeting amazing Yakitori and sake masters this year. The world needs to know about these places and people.
Did I mention that I’ve been cooking up lots of Yakitori this year? I’m getting pretty decent at it too, especially when the Yakitori masters have been very awesome about sharing their techniques with me. I want to share all these experiences and stories with you too!
Until recently, my career has been in developing and connecting with product users from around the world as a community manager for tech startups. While in that career, I realized the part of the job which I enjoyed the most is the role of a facilitator that brings together the diverse group of users sharing the same interest for that product.
It’s the same relationship for Izakaya masters and their customers. Instead of talking about app updates and Bluetooth connections, with Brewzakaya I'm bringing together the community through my Kodawari cooking and discussions about Japanese food and drinks.
Irrasshai mase! And welcome to the Brewzakaya kitchen. I’m ready to serve you!
To see new menu items in development for the next pop-up check out @brewzakaya and to see other behind the scene things I’m working on, make sure to follow @yakitoriguy.