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!