The simplest and most forgiving Yakitori staple is Negima: a juicy chicken leg.

Hunting for the perfect Yakitori – a Japanese-style grilled chicken skewer-is a full-time activity for some.

Restaurants in Japan are usually very different from those in the United States. In the United States, most restaurants offer a variety of Foods Prepared in different ways. You will probably see grilled foods, stir-fried foods, fried foods, cooked foods, steamed foods, etc. on the same menu. In Japan, it is much more common for a Restaurant to specialize in a technique. If you’re craving Tempura, you better hope it’s everyone in your group, because that’s all the Restaurant will be serving.

This type of hyperspecialization produces logical results: Restaurants that specialize in a particular food become really good at it, and regardless of the niche of a particular topic, there will undoubtedly be some kind of Innovation.

How many types of grilled chicken can a restaurant serve? Three? Four? Try Dozens. And I’m not even talking about spicing things up with crazy spices or sauces. Most Yakitori Restaurants offer only two seasoning options: salt and white pepper, or a mirin glaze with sweet soy sauce (Tara, commonly known as Teriyaki Sauce in the United States). And the cooking technique does not vary much either. Everything that is served in a Yakitori house is inevitably strung on short bamboo skewers and cooked slowly on a specially designed charcoal grill that allows the chef to rotate the meat continuously, keep it juicy and develop a perfectly golden crust, with just the slightest hint of Arctic char.

And yet, visiting a first-rate Yakitori establishment in Tokyo is like going to the all-you-can-eat Buffet at the Golden Corral: you may be paralyzed by your choice. The only difference is that in a Yakitori Restaurant, you think: “Oh man, which of these three dozen awesome ones do I choose?”, and in the Golden Corral it’s more like: “which of these three dozen options will make me contrition the least in a few hours?”*

* Answers: all or none of them.

You will find chicken breast, chicken fillet, chicken breast cartilage, individually skewered thighs, each wing section, chicken skin skewers, chicken stomachs and the bumps with crispy fat from the end of the chicken tail. To give you an idea, I have a book in Japanese on the advanced Yakitori techniques of the famous TORI + SALON Restaurants in Tokyo, which has 208 full pages. It includes no less than 11 different ways to cut and impale chicken liver and eight different methods to impale hearts. This is a serious and serious matter.

It is also, as much as Japanese food tends to be, the business of making more monumental efforts for slightly better yields. The fact is that even without years of specialized training, anyone can make really, really tasty Yakitori at home. Will he push the edge of perfection? Probably not, but it’s better than anything you get from the panjapan Restaurant around the block, which serves sushi, Tempura, Yakitori and Ramen on the same menu. For my money, Negima is the simplest and most forgiving Yakitori staple: a juicy chicken leg strung on a skewer in turn with green onions. Because the thighs are naturally rich in connective tissue and fat, they become juicy even if you do not measure the temperature accurately during cooking.

In the TORI + SALON book you will find a total of 18 photos and steps that will show you how to properly cut and slice a chicken leg for your Negima, followed by four more photos of the correct skewer technique and four more for instructions on how to grill it.

We will find our way to delicious results with, oh, let’s say five steps, and one of them is optional!

Step 1: Prepare the Sauce

You don’t need a Tara to make a great Yakitori — just a little salt and pepper will do-but I love the sweet-salty flavor and the glorious shine it gives to grilled foods. My Tara is very similar to our Teriyaki Sauce, except for the few aromatic vegetables (green onions, garlic and ginger) that I add to the base of soy sauce, Mirin, sake and sugar. If you have leftover fat-free chicken lying around, adding some to the Sauce when it’s reduced to a glossy glaze will further enhance the flavor of the chicken.

Step 2: Skewer the chicken

At TORI + SALON, they are extremely careful to separate the muscle groups from the chicken thighs and carefully remove the remnants of fat and tendon. For our needs at home, it is enough to cut the chicken into coarse one-inch cubes. I toss them with a little salt and white pepper, then string them on flat metal skewers, alternating a few pieces of chicken with one-inch green onions, using only the white and light green parts.

The real key here is to put everything together so that it fits snugly, which creates less surface area for moisture loss during the cooking of the chicken and gives juicier results.

Step 3: Grill!

Because it is cooked at a relatively moderate heat and because chicken thighs are so forgiving, cooking Negima is pretty foolproof. All you have to do is place the skewers on a preheated and oiled grill and cook them, turning them whenever you feel like it and seasoning the chicken several times with more pinches of salt and pepper. (The addition of salt during cooking provides a deep seasoning, while the gradual addition of pepper helps to develop layers of different types of pepper flavor.) By the way, you don’t need to use white pepper if you don’t like it. Black pepper is acceptable, as is a pinch of spicy Togarashi or any other condiment that suits your palate. In the photo below, I am actually sprinkling a touch of Yuzu salt powder made from the skin of a Japanese citrus fruit.

Even if Yakitori is traditionally cooked over charcoal embers, it is said that the coals are completely smoke-free. Coupled with the mild heat, this means that the flavor of Yakitori cooked over a gas flame is not much different from that of Yakitori cooked over a live charcoal fire. Good news for gas grills!

Step 4: Frosting

Once the chicken is well browned, it’s time to brush it with Tara glaze. I use a silicone brush from OXO that has a layer of perforated flaps that hold the extra sauce, which makes it easier to get an even coverage. Once it has been brushed on all sides, you are ready for the last step.

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