Yakitori Build Take 2
When a craving for a certain food turns into 4 hours of metalworking...
Yakitori is one of those seemingly simple dishes with gigantic flavors that can only come from Japan. Behind the scenes the preparation is quite complex. Even if you had all the tools, preparing enough yakitori for yourself could take hours. To just call these skewers of chicken doesn't do the dish justice. Yakitori is a food best served with beer. Japan is home to hundreds of Yakitori grills serving hot, fast drinking food to armies of Japanese in navy blue suits and pressed white shirts before taking the train to their homes. Yakitori's salty fat laced crispiness and a few cold beers are the nightcap for the highly urban office warriors of Japan's fast-paced modern cities.
This journey into yakitori madness started with an article "Yakitori Sachsmo" I read in May of 2012. The entry article showed a man, kneeling in front of a small ceramic grill turning small skewers of meat on a Brooklyn rooftop. I was hooked.
The summer before I had just moved to Greensboro, NC from Atlanta. Leaving my wife and dogs behind while she finished up her degree was tough but allowed me extra time to hike, explore and experiment with cooking in new and meaningful ways. I had signed up for a ceramics class at the local art center putting my hands in clay for the first time in almost 15 years. After a few weeks of throwing pots I wanted to try my hand at some new techniques and that Yakitori grill came screaming in as my next project. We'll talk about that later, it was successful for a guy to use on his porch cooking for himself but it's build was not long for this world.
Fast forward to September of 2020, there had been a plate of 1/4" steel remaining from my original fire pit build from 2014 that would make a beast of a yakitori grill. While my previous yakitori grill was too small, think the size of a shoebox, this one would be massive enough to cook for 6+ people when filled with coals. The end dimension would be 35" long, 6" wide and 8" tall. We were now in the yakitori business.
I've got a small Lincoln Electric welder I picked up at Home Depot almost 20 years ago. The price was right, with a discount and missing a few parts I picked it up for under $100. It's nice for rough work but it makes a damn mess and spatters up a storm. The welders I have at the shop are much nicer but...the weather was perfect and moving that plate steel is no fun. Other tools used were my trusty Bosch Jigsaw for the detail cuts and a Milwaukee 5" grinder for the rough-in cuts. As always, speed squares, various measuring devices, center punches and a few pieces of extra sharp soapstone were on hand.
After 3 or so hours of work we had our yakitori box complete. The basic box shape has some upper saw cuts to give it a traditional feel. The crowns at the end keep errant skewers from rolling off, a nice feature with some cool ornamentation. I've added a few feet to the bottom to keep it off whatever surface it will reside on. A key feature missing is any form of insulation. I want to cook with a bit before figuring out that detail. The plan was to pour refractory cement in it but I don't want it cracking when moving it. So we shall see.
Now that the yakitori grill was finished and we had a heat source we had to figure out where to put it. I've had dreams of doing a yakitori night over bottles of Four Roses Bourbon I brought back from Japan years ago. My plan was to grill in the dining room right in the center of the table. So we took that tack here but with the great late-summer weather we've been having this was a cook for the back deck. To keep the grill from turning the teak table into kindling we laid down a welders apron and a few bricks to keep the grill off the table. It worked but the grill puts off serious heat.
The menu included traditional and modern yakitori dishes. Traditional yakitori is chicken. Give a Japanese butcher a chicken and you'll end up with twice as many parts to a chicken than a bird prepared by a western butcher. We're talking 12+ cuts of chicken off a single bird. I stuck with 4 cuts and they were all dark cuts of meat within the thighs and wings. The knife of choice was a Honesuki. This knife profile was made for deboning small animals and poultry. Looking at a set of Japanese knives is quite daunting, but all those knives have very specific uses and when you start going down the rabbit hole of cooking, it's easy to see why all that steel is extremely useful and time saving.
Traditional Yakitori. Chicken Oysters, Chicken Inner Thigh, Butterflied Chicken Wings, Chicken Thigh w. Scallion and Chicken Skins.
Modern Yakitori Blistered Shishito Peppers, Togarashi Shrimp, Miso grilled Eggplant, Pork Belly w. Leek, King Oyster Mushroom w. Miso Butter, Shitake, Okra and Maitake Mushrooms.
5 Spice Boiled Peanuts, Pickled Watermelon/Cauliflower/Thai Chili, Soy Sauce Shiitake and Scallion.
A key element to yakitori I haven't mentioned yet is Binchotan charcoal. Extremely expensive and somewhat hard to find in the States. Prices are up to $30/lbs. Fortunately a friend in California had sent me a box of Charblox, turns out it was the catalyst for this build. I was hoping it's combination of low smoke, high heat and long burn could be the binchotan-esque heat I was looking for. While it's not a perfect replacement, it worked well enough here.
No cook is complete without drinks. We'll post the sake cocktails as their own feature but I can say using sake as a substitute for Vermouth in a Negroni makes a fine drink. Ample amounts of Sapporo elevates this drinking mans food into what is was meant for.
Perhaps I put the coals on a bit early as we smoked out the table a bit but this is all about the trials and tribulations of cooking. All in all this was a ridiculously fun night of cooking with new tools, techniques and tastes. It's not every night your guests can go home after eating a meal cooked on a fresh purpose-built grill.
If you're not learning, you're doing it wrong.
Recipes coming soon!