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