Now Trending: Metro Manila is Craving for YakitoriJanuary 7, 2020
Japanese is one of my favorite cuisines; if you’re looking for anything from noodles to rice, from raw fish to fried chicken, they’ve got insanely delicious versions of it. Yakitori, or generally, kushiyaki, is the term for skewered meats or vegetables turned over a hot grill. It’s a generally celebrated food in Japan, the ideal meal for co-workers to drink beers over, or young people to grab on their way home. Alleys chock full of yakitori joints are found all over Japan. Unlike other cultural dishes which vary from city to city, yakitori is almost similar across the country, usually fixed on bamboo skewers, then turned over hot charcoal. It’s the blistered skin that gives yakitori its unique taste, the slight char that enhances the flavor of meat and fat, or gives vegetables an intense roast.
Some prefer their yakitori with shio or just salt, which gives you an unadulterated taste of whatever is being grilled. Sometimes a slight squeeze of lemon over a stick adds tartness and acidity, but otherwise, it’s just plain and simple. Others go with tare, which we sometimes confuse for teriyaki sauce because of its sweetness. This is another flavor profile entirely, more umami than sweet, because of the combination of mirin, soy sauce, sugar and sake. Traditional yakitori includes most parts of the chicken, including thigh, skin, wing, tail, cartilage, gizzard, intestines, heart, liver, chicken oyster and meatballs that have the distinct flavor of spring onion. If you’re not one for poultry, kushiyaki encompasses blistered shishito peppers, enoki bacon, asparagus bacon, beef tongue and even simply roasted garlic.
Traditional yakitori has long been popular in the Philippines since Japanese restaurants started to infiltrate our shores in the 1980’s. Although there are no strictly yakitori-only places here like in Japan, most restaurants that specialized in the cuisine had to have a yakitori section on their menu. Popular with the businessmen who encompassed a great deal of our Japanese visitors and immigrants, it was essential to serve this in restaurants that catered to this clientele.
To us Filipinos, it was a foreign version of our traditional barbecue that we could get on board with, a straightforward take that wasn’t too far off from our own palates. Nowadays, we’ve got tons of restaurants everywhere that are known for dishing out yakitori. Chain Nanbantei offers surprisingly affordable versions. Nihonbashitei serves up some cheap ones that are perfect for customers trawling through their space at an odd hour, and pricier joints such as Tsumura or Tsukiji have more upscale or well-sourced skewers on their menus. Little Tokyo is abound with them too, the most famous of which is Kikufuji, known for their addicting beef cubes that feel worth more than their price tag.
But now, as people around the world are getting addicted to adding Asian influences to their modern cooking, yakitori is taking tradition into the new age. Hong Kong’s Yardbird has banked on that idea alone, an almost purely yakitori joint, that takes these humble skewers into a different level. Their playful menu has all the traditional chicken parts but switches up the seasonings, introducing yuzu, sansho and shichimi into the fold. Bar Chuko in New York has untraditional prawn, octopus, pork jowl, wagyu short rib and even bacon mochi on their succinct but seriously delicious menu.
Now back in Manila, chefs are doing it too, whether in Japanese-inspired spaces or not. 12/10, by the powerhouse young couple behind The Girl + The Bull, has a salmon kushiyaki on their menu which might just be the best thing there. It comes with truffle, wasabi, black sesame, curry, aonori (powdered seaweed), and cornflakes on top, it’s the sort of ridiculous combination that should never work, but does. Tambai has created a whole modern concept based on yakitori, with soft-shell crab and wagyu rib finger on the menu, in a casual, boozy setting that isn’t out of place in one of Japan’s yakitori alleys. Let’s hope this trend gets even bigger this year in all its charred, delicious glory.