Kushiyaki is a popular type of Japanese cuisine that, in its broad definition, refers to all foods grilled on skewers. The word kushiyaki (串焼き) is literally just a compound word of the kanji for skewer (串) and grill (焼).
In practice, however, the vast majority of kushiyaki foods are chicken cuts, in which case, they're called 'yakitori' (焼き鳥), which translates literally to grilled chicken. Other types include 'yakiton' for pork, 'gyu-kushi' for beef, and some places even offer eel on skewers.
If you're curious about the many types of kushiyaki you can order at a kushiyaki restaurant in Japan, see the section below.
Where do Japanese people enjoy kushiyaki?
Izakaya in Omoide Yokocho in Shinjuku, Tokyo
The best place to enjoy good quality, reasonably priced kushiyaki in a quaint atmosphere is at old-school Japanese small izakayas (taverns). They usually have a wide counter from which you can see the chef grill the skewers right before your eyes.
You can also find kushiyaki at more standard restaurants too. Torikizoku, for instance, is a large chicken-specializing restaurant chain that is quite famous for its yakitori.
Also, if you go to a summer festival (matsuri) in Japan, you are likely to see some kushiyaki stalls.
The two basic flavourings: 'tare' or 'shio'
When you order kushiyaki, you may be asked how you want your food flavoured. There are two basic options: 'tare' and 'shio'. Tare means that the skewer will be dipped in a soy-based sauce during the grilling process, whereas shio means that it will simply be salted. If you're not sure which one to have, you can leave it to the chef. Although it's really a matter of personal preference, some cuts are said to taste better with tare, while others are better with shio.
Before you select your flavouring, just choosing your kushiyaki can be a little overwhelming as there are so many types. To make it a bit easier, we've made a simple guide of the most popular kinds of kushiyaki you're likely to encounter on a menu at a Japanese restaurant.
The kushiyaki guide is divided into two sections. The first part introduces the yakitori, which is by far the most common type, and the second part introduces non-chicken kushiyaki.
Chicken kushikatsu (also known as yakitori)
Momo is the most common yakitori there is. It refers to the leg meat so it's a little more oily than the breast meat. You should probably have this one with tare.
This is a standard momo or breast yakitori with some Japanese leek added to it. This one is also a staple at every yakitori restaurant.
Tsukune are chicken meatloaf-like balls or sticks. Soft and juicy, these are very popular. Sometimes in fancy places, they're served with an egg yolk for you to dip them into. They're usually done with tare.
Do you like chicken skin? Good! Because you can order kawa skewers in Japan that are just that. Done right, they’re not too soft and not too crispy. These are good simply salted or with tare.
Liver (pronounced ‘lebah’ in Japanese)
Liver yakitori is part of the ‘horumon’ (innards) category that so many Japanese love. People love liver yakitori for its strong taste and silky texture. It goes really well with tare so even if you aren’t usually a fan of liver you might like it this way.
Heart (pronounced ‘hatsu’ in Japanese)
Another ‘horumon’ yakitori is the heart. The taste is something in between breast meat and liver. The tough texture is what makes it most interesting. This one is better with tare.
Sasami is the lean part of the chicken breast. It's good simply salted but sometimes it comes with some extra condiments. Another cut similar in taste to this one is seseri, which is the meat along the neck.
These are cartilage skewers much appreciated for their crunchy texture. Give nankotsu a try if you haven’t. Not only is it delicious, but also very healthy because of it's packed with collagen.
Bonjiri, considered many people's favourite, is the super tasty and tender meat around the tail of the chicken. This cut is a bit oily so better have leaner meat skewers along with it.
Sunagimo is the gizzard. Much like the heart kushikatsu, it doesn’t have a strong taste and people like it for its hard texture.
Chicken wings are 'tebasaki' in Japanese, and they are incredibly good done yakitori style with a tare sauce.
Meats other than chicken
Pork skewers, or yakiton, enjoy a certain degree of popularity, and there are even some yakiton-specializing restaurants. Just like yakitori, there's a plethora of different cuts to try.
The most popular cut is kashira, which is cheek meat. It's really juicy yet has a firm texture.
Another popular cut is harami. This is refered to as 'pork flank' in English. This one is quite tender and goes well with a deep-flavoured tare.
Something you might want to try at a yakiton restaurant is the 'tan' skewers, which are thinly sliced tongues. The meat is very lean and the texture is chewy. This one goes well with salt and is sometimes served with lemon.
Another yakiton you might want to try is the 'shiro', which refers to the intestines. This one is incredibly delicious and chewy when nicely grilled and dipped into a rich tare sauce.
Other popular yakiton include liver, cartilage, and heart.
Gyu-kushi are beef skewers. These are even less common than pork skewers.
Like the pork skewers, a popular cut is the tender harami, or flank meat.
Even fattier is the karubi, or beef ribs cuts. You'll love these for their umami-packed juicy tenderness.
You might also want to try the gyu-tan, or beef tongues, which are a delicacy in Japan. People like gyu-tan for their superb chewy texture. They go really well with a citrusy dipping sauce.
A last noteworthy type of kushiyaki is this eel one called unagi-kushi. This type is not common but you should definitely try it if you go to a nice eel restaurant in Japan that has it on its menu! The picture above is from a restaurant called 'Unatetsu' in Shinjuku.
They're made by skewering a small eel and dipping it repeatedly in tare sauce. The skin is crispy and savoury and the inside is soft and juicy.
How about some yakikushi in Tokyo?
Yakikushi is arguably one of the best foods in Japan if you're a meat-lover. Another thing to mention is that this cuisine goes wonderfully well with beer or shochu (a kind of Japanese spirit), and the atmosphere of kushiyaki izakayas is so authentic and warm. So if you want to enjoy good foods and a few drinks in good company, why not go to a yakikushi restaurant in Tokyo? Here are our picks for yakitori restaurants in central Tokyo (Shinjuku).