Skewered and Grilled Japanese Food
Kushiyaki is grilled skewers. Much like a shish kebab. Various meats and veggies, skewered with bamboo skewers and grilled. Yakitori is a popular type of kushiyaki commonly found in izakaya throughout Tokyo.
While yakitori is the most popular (and there is quite a variety of yakitori, including negima (green onion and chicken) — there is a large variety of kushiyaki outside of yakitori.
Yakiton is grilled pork on a skewer — and is insanely delicious. Beef kushiyaki is delectable too — especially when it is high-grade wagyu.
You’ll find two primary types of kushiyaki shops; those with gas grills and those with charcoal. Charcoal is the best, by far (though sometimes a bit smokey). But within the charcoal grill shops, there are tiers (no one talks about them this way).
On the one hand, you have the crusty old shop where it looks like decades of fats and sauces have caramelized permanently into the grill — those are top-tier, nothing else wins, type of shops. They’re usually tiny, hard to find, and packed 100% of the time.
On the other hand, are the up and comers with newer grills and a chip on their shoulder. They have something to prove. You usually can’t go wrong here either, but it’s a coin-toss, and sometimes you get tails.
The good news is there are seemingly a billion shops to try.
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This tour will take you around the Golden Gai and Kabukicho area of Shinjuku where you’ll try quite a variety of food, including some delicious kushiyaki — with the help of a guide.
- You can enjoy the Tokyo nightlife like local people.
- Explore Kabukicho, the most famous and largest red-light district in Japan.
- See Shinjuku Golden Gai, a unique bar area of Tokyo.
- Eat Japanese local food for dinner! I can introduce you to delicious ramen, yakitori, takoyaki, okonomiyaki, udon, soba, tempura, sashimi, and many more!
Learn more and sign up here (in English)
Okay, so what exactly is kushiyaki?
So many foreigners know of yakitori, and so many make the innocent mistake believing everything skewered and grilled is called yakitori.
Which is fine, but it turns out it isn’t actually true. You’re about to learn so much more about kushiyaki than you knew existed. But first, let’s compare kushiyaki with yakitori.
Yakitori is a Type of Kushiyaki
Yakitori is grilled chicken. Sure, it’s more than the standard chicken meat you’re probably imagining right now, but it is still just chicken. Not beef tongue. Not bacon-wrapped asparagus.
Just chicken. Essentially all parts of the chicken: skin, cartilage, thigh, sasami (chicken breast), heart, liver, and so on.
Kushiyaki vs Yakitori
The eternal struggle right? One side the more commonly known yakitori. The winner of the popularity contest.
On the other side sits the much larger contender — as it encompasses more types of skewered foods (and technically yakitori is just a specific subsection part of kushiyaki).
As you can see this shouldn’t even be a comparison. Kushiyaki gets a bad rap, an unlucky beat. Or well… is just plain unknown really. So what does kushiyaki mean?
What is the Meaning of Kushiyaki?
If you throw 串焼き into Google translate it will tell you skewers. Kushiyaki means skewers? Kind of.
More specifically it’s grilled skewers — essentially anything you can skewer, grill, and then eat. It’s the overall word that encompasses all the more specific types like yakitori and yakiton.
And boy do the Japanese love skewered food, and so do I. So here’s some kanji to look out for when looking for kushiyaki.
Kanji to Identify a Kushiyaki Shop: 串
While walking around the streets of Tokyo, if you see a sign and it has this 串 written on it, chances are you are staring at a kushiyaki (or kushiage) shop. Go in! You won’t regret it.
Check out this amazing video
If this video doesn’t make you want to run out and find your nearest restaurant, I don’t know what will:
Okay, technically the restaurant they mention in the video serves yakiton — which is grilled pork skewers. But guess what. Yakiton is kushiyaki too!
Common Kushiyaki Outside of Yakitori
- Yakiton — Just like yakitori is all sorts of parts of the chicken, yakiton is all sorts of parts of the pig. I’ll cover yakiton more in-depth in another article — probably combined with yakitori.
- Other pork items include kashira (jowl), shiro (intestine), and liver.
- Asuparabekon — Say this out loud to yourself. What do you think it is? If you guessed fried crawfish you’d be… wait… what? No, this is asparagus wrapped with bacon! Bacon-dayo!
- Tomatobekonmaki — This is another easy one. Tomato wrapped with bacon. Bacon again-dayo!
- Gyutan — This is beef tongue (my wife’s favorite, and is massively popular in Japan).
- Shiitake — You haven’t had shiitake mushrooms until you’ve tried grilled shiitake mushrooms. They change your perspective completely.
- Tsukune — a sort of chicken meatball, skewered, and grilled, often served with a raw egg yolk to dip in
You’ll notice it starts to get quite descriptive, with each item essentially naming exactly what the skewered thing is. And that’s the punchline.
Kushiyaki is skewered:
- chicken, beef, pork, squid, octopus…
- peppers, tomato, asparagus, mushroom…
- intestine, heart, liver…
- tofu, aburaage, natto, and more…
If you can skewer and grill it, it’s kushiyaki.
When you order you’ll often be given a choice of two flavors: salt or sauce. And some shops will have a little saucer of dipping sauce too.
Salt in Japanese is shio and sauce is tare. But what is kushiyaki sauce?
It’s a mixture of soy sauce, mirin (a type of rice wine used in cooking), sake (Japanese alcohol), sugar, along with various other ingredients to change things up. Every shop will craft their sauce differently for a unique flavor.
Tebasaki is Different
Tebasaki is commonly found in kushiyaki shops (which are usually an izakaya focused on kushiyaki cuisine). While similar, it is grilled, tebasaki is chicken wings! Not skewered and has the bone inside still.
Tebasaki is absolutely delicious in Tokyo — hunt for a Yama-chan’s and enjoy the peppery wings.
Other Common Dishes at Kushiyaki Izakaya
You’ll find most kushiyaki shops also have a few other interesting things on the menu. Some are classic izakaya staples.
- Onion rings
- Agedashi tofu (fried tofu in dashi sauce)
- Rice cakes
- Potato salad
- Edamame (soybeans in the pod)
The Kushiyaki Grill and Binchotan
I couldn’t have all this talk about grilled skewers and nothing about the grill (and the charcoal).
The grill is interesting because it is precisely built just to grill skewers without any metal elements touching the food. The skewer crosses the grill exposing the ingredients to the heat and smoke directly.
And even the charcoal is interesting! Never thought you’d ever hear that huh? If you’re at a really good restaurant they’ll use authentic binchotan.
Binchotan is charcoal created from a specific oak tree from the Wakayama region of Japan. Cured and craft at about 1,000 degrees to create a charcoal that releases no odor to affect the flavor of food. (source: WakayamaPref)
Kushiyaki, Beer, Sake, and Otsumami
Kushiyaki is one of those foods in Japan that is synonymous with beer, sake, and otsumami.
By the way, otsumami is the small foods or snacks that are perfectly matched for eating with beer or sake.
Most commonly you’ll find edamame (salted soybeans), tamagoyaki (a pan-grilled omelet, sometimes sweetened), and tsukemono (pickles).
Learn from the master chef Culture & History
This video put together by Savor Japan does a deep dive into kushiyaki and the history behind it too. A bit of a long watch, but interesting.