Yakiniku: The art of Japanese BBQ
February 3, 2012
Yakiniku – The Art of Japanese BBQ
The rough and rugged mountainous topography of Japan that gave us the Kobe Beef
is also the home of one of the most refined barbecue cultures in the world outside of the United States: Yakiniku. Literally translated as ‘grilled meat’, Yakiniku was introduced in Japan at the end of the 19th century by Emperor Meiji in an attempt to encourage western culture in Japan. What was at first a novelty soon became a part of Japanese culinary tradition, and ranks as one of Japan’s most sought after cultural exports (besides Nintendo and Sony, of course!).
The Origins of Yakiniku
Steak, ribs and grilled chicken have been a staple of the western diet for centuries. In the middle of the 19th century, as Japan was opening up to the world following the restoration of imperial rule (the Meiji Restoration), delicacies borrowed from the western world were thought of as an expedient to the modernization of Japan. Emperor Meiji was a big believer in modern, industrial practices and sought to break Japan away from centuries of cultural stagnation. And food, as it usually is, was a big part of his strategy of breaking down the stranglehold of a stifling culture.
Historically and gastronomically, Japanese culture has borrowed generously from neighboring China. The Japanese diet, prior to the propagation of ‘civilization and enlightenment’ following the Meiji Restoration, was largely traditional with a heavy focus on poultry and pork and lots of influences from China and Korea. After Emperor Meiji took over the reins of the empire, the ban on the consumption of beef was lifted – an event which ultimately led to Japan becoming the supplier of the world’s favorite beef. With no restrictions on the consumption of cattle, western style steaks suddenly became a (very delectable) possibility.
But of course, rather than duplicating the western culinary tradition, Japanese chefs worked their own cultural history and gastronomical influences into the new-found hunger for grilled meats. Borrowing heavily from the Korean tradition of ‘bulgogi
‘ and ‘galbi
‘, they whipped up the signature Japanese barbecue dishes that we now collectively call ‘Yakiniku’.
Making it Their Own
Katarzyna Cwiertka, author of ‘Modern Japanese Cuisine: Food, Power and National Identity’, argues that Japanese cuisine reflects the Japanese tendency to borrow from abroad and adapt it to local tastes and customs. This tendency made Japan the modern industrial powerhouse that it is today, and also led to the birth of the unique flavors of the Japanese barbecue. Despite overt Korean and American influences, Yakiniku, or Japanese BBQ, is very typically Japanese both in terms of the spices used, and the methods of cooking.
A typical Yakiniku recipe would include ingredients you’ll never find in an American barbecue: miso paste, sake, scallion paste, etc. And yet, the basic cooking method – grilling on an open charcoal or gas fire – is distinctively American.
This is also perhaps the reason for the burgeoning popularity of Japanese barbecue in the western world. It works as the perfect ‘middle-of-the-road’ dish, combining the familiarity of the barbecue with the exoticness of Japanese flavors.
Starting With Yakiniku – A Medley of Meats and Spices
Beef is the most common meat in Yakiniku style barbecue. However, it is rarely cut into steaks. Instead, most Yakiniku recipes call for thick chunks of meat, typically cut from loin.
Pork ribs and pork belly are also very common meats.
The Japanese barbecue tradition does not hesitate from using ‘Horumon’ or Offal. Beef liver, heart, tongue, diaphragm and intestines, etc. all find a place on the Yakiniku grill. Of course, this can be a little too adventurous for most western consumers, who tend to largely stick to the tried and tested meats.
Chicken is another popular meat. It is usually cut into bite sized pieces and marinated in sake and miso sauce, skewered onto a wooden stick and grilled over a charcoal fire. This form of barbecue is called ‘Yakitori’ and is a common sight on streets across Japan.
And of course, no Japanese barbecue would be complete without seafood. Lightly spiced shellfish, squids, etc. make for excellent Yakiniku meats.
The characteristic feature of Japanese barbecue is the bite-sized or thinly sliced meat pieces. Large racks of ribs are a rarity, and you won’t find anything even close to steaks or pulled pork in a Yakiniku restaurant. All meats – from squids to beef – are cut into small, thick chunks. And since bite sized chunks are so easy to eat, street-side stalls selling Yakiniku have sprung up all across Japan, offering savory grilled delights to businessmen out on lunch, or a tasty snack for families out on an evening stroll.
Japanese barbecue utilizes very typically Asian spices. Soy sauce, sake, miso paste (made from soybean), sesame oil, garlic, pepper, etc. are commonly used to marinade the meats before grilling.
Almost any recipe you’ll find online will make heavy use of sake and soy sauce. Japanese cuisine utilizes sesame oil almost exclusively, although many ‘Americanized’ recipes call for regular olive oil. Typically Japanese seasonings such as ‘Hondashi seasoning’ are commonly used as well. Most Yakiniku dishes are served with a slice of grilled vegetables and a generous sprinkling of soy sauce and special Yakiniku BBQ sauce.
The typical Yakiniku combines a number of complex flavors, from the pungency of ginger and garlic, to the sweetness of honey, the tang of sake and the spice of chili flakes. While traditional recipes call for charcoal fires, most restaurants these days use the much more convenient gas grills The end result is a barbecue unlike anything you’ve experienced before: slightly sweet, slightly savory, with a very Asian aroma but a texture entirely American. Little wonder there’s a Japanese barbecue restaurant in almost every major city these days!
So what about you guys, anyone ventured into more exotic barbecuing like this? How did it turn out?
Kevin is a barbecue enthusiast with an undying passion for food. He runs a savory site for barbecue recipes and reviews of the best gas grills at GodOfTheGrill.com
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