Yakitori is a classic, easy Japanese street food served on skewers. This version, known as Yakitori Negima, is made with chicken and green onion grilled on a charcoal grill for a light smoky flavor and brushed with a homemade sweet and salty yakitori sauce. They cook quickly so they are great for weekday grilling and make a fantastic dinner with rice and grilled veggies on the side, or just serve them as an appetizer like they do in Japan!
Sometimes we get in a rut with our chicken dinners, so it's always nice to change up the flavors and method of preparation to keep things interesting. Check out some other reader favorite chicken recipes like Chinese Chicken Salad, Slow Cooker Applesauce Pulled Chicken Sandwiches, and Curried Chicken Salad.
We love Japanese food at our house! It's one of our favorite cuisines with amazing flavors and textures. Japan is high on our list of places we want to visit, but until then, we can enjoy making different Japanese-inspired dishes at home like these delicious Yakitori chicken skewers!
We are also big fans of the Olympics and every year that the Summer or Winter Games are held we like to celebrate by enjoying foods from the host country and talking with our kids about some of the similarities and differences between our cultures. We have done it for past games in Brazil and Korea and it's one of our favorite traditions associated with the games.
It's just one of the ways (along with travel to other countries when possible, books about other cultures, and more) that we try to teach them to be good global citizens. With this year's Summer Games being held in Tokyo it was the perfect time to try out some new (to us) Japanese foods as a family.
Quick Culture Tip: In Japan it is common to say "itadakimasu" which is a polite expression meaning "I receive this food" and gives thanks to the person who prepared the food.
What is Yakitori?
Yakitori has many different preparations, but it means "grilled bird" and is typically grilled over a charcoal fire. It is made with either just salt for seasoning (this preparation is known as shio) or a salty-sweet yakitori sauce called tare.
While this is a chicken version, you can also find pork versions as well, along with others that include vegetables. They are made on metal or bamboo skewers called kushi or teppō gushi (gun skewer) which are shorter than typical skewers and flat on one end. You can find them at many Asian markets or order them online.
The meat is cut into small, evenly sized pieces for even cooking, then skewered and grilled. You typically find them either seasoned simply with just salt, or glazed while grilling with a salty-sweet sauce (called "tare") that is made with mirin, sake, soy sauce, and sugar that caramelizes from the heat. Sometimes additional flavors and spices are also added.
While you can find it at tapas-style restaurants or pubs known as izakaya, the portability of yakitori and ease of preparation make it a really popular street food and it's commonly sold from carts or stalls known as yatai, especially during festivals or in high foot traffic areas.
- Chicken: Boneless, skinless chicken thighs are my preference for this kind of grilling because they are so juicy and flavorful, but you could use chicken breasts as well. The thigh meat goes really well with the flavors of the yakitori sauce.
- Mirin: If you are going to be cooking Japanese food, you will likely want a bottle of Mirin which is a sweet Japanese cooking wine that is pretty easy to find in the Asian aisle of your regular grocery store. I found a great article all about this ingredient that is worth a read. If you can't find it, dry sherry or sweet marsala wine can be used as substitutes, and a dry white wine or even rice vinegar can be used, although for the latter two you will need to add an additional ½ teaspoon of sugar to counteract their sourness for each tablespoon used.
- Soy Sauce: I used regular soy sauce as that is what I happened to have on hand. If you have dark soy sauce, I would recommend using that for a deeper, richer color, but the flavors are more or less the same.
- Sake: This is another Japanese cooking wine but it's actually a type rice wine. You can find it at Japanese markets. The best substitutes would either be dry sherry or simply replacing the sake with water.
- Brown Sugar: A little brown sugar adds a sweetness to balance out the other salty, savory ingredients in the yakitori sauce.
- Garlic & ginger: When I was researching recipes I noticed that some included garlic and ginger as additional flavor components to the sauce while others left them out, relying solely on mirin, soy sauce, sake, and sugar. I feel like they add complexity and depth to the sauce, so I kept them in my version, although you can certainly omit them.
- Green Onions: These are so good with the chicken and sauce! They add a wonderful bright fresh element that contrasts nicely with the smoky chicken and sauce, which is why I think yakitori negima is one of the most popular varieties around.
- Wood or metal skewers: You can really use any skewers you have on hand, although for truly authentic yakitori you want the shorter, flat on one end for easy turning gun skewers.
How to Make Yakitori Negima
- Soak the skewers: Make sure to start your wooden skewers soaking at least 30 minutes before you plan to grill your yakitori so they don't burn up over the heat. If using a charcoal grill, you will also want to get your coals going in advance so they are ready when it's time to grill.
- Make the yakitori sauce: Start out by combining the soy sauce, mirin, sake, brown sugar, garlic, ginger, and the leftover tops of some green onions in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium and cook for about 15 minutes until reduced by half. The sauce will thicken slightly, but it will still be fairly thin. Set aside to cool completely. Reserve ⅓ of the sauce for brushing on after cooking for additional flavor and place the remaining sauce in another bowl to avoid cross-contamination.
Pro Tip: Yakitori sauce (or "tare") keeps for a long time in the fridge, so you can make a batch of it and store it for 2-3 months in a mason jar with a lid to always have on hand for a quick and easy dinner.
- Thread the skewers: Slice the chicken and green onions into roughly 1 ½-inch pieces then alternate threading them onto the soaked skewers. If using chicken thighs (which I recommend), you will likely need to fold the chicken occasionally to thread strips of it on since it doesn't cube like breasts do. Go ahead and fill up the skewers pretty snug with meat and veggies so they are nice and full.
- Grill and baste: Place the skewers over direct heat on the grill and let them sear on one side for a few minutes. Once they start getting some good color on the bottom, give them a flip and start basting with the yakitori sauce using a brush. You can continue to turn and brush the chicken with as much of the sauce as you like since it will caramelize and build up flavor as it cooks. Just be careful to watch the chicken once you start adding the sauce since the sugar in it can burn.
Really the flavors are very similar between these two dishes, although yakitori sauce has mirin and teriyaki sauce typically doesn't. The main difference that I am aware of is that teriyaki is made with whole pieces of chicken while yakitori is cut up and skewered chicken. Also, while yakitori is almost always grilled or broiled, teriyaki chicken can be grilled or pan fried.
No! Pork is another common protein choice for yakitori. I'm interested in trying butabara, which is a version made with pork belly. Even when it is made with chicken there is more than just breast and thigh meat that can be used. Tsukune (another type of yakitori) are Japanese meatballs that are most often made with ground chicken and skewered like you see here. But in Japan you will also find yakitori made with all parts of the chicken from the heart to the tongue, gizzard, liver, and intestines.
What to serve with Yakitori
These grilled meat skewers go with any typical barbecue sides, but we like to serve them with white rice and grilled vegetable skewers or roasted green beans. Grilled pineapple or grilled bell peppers would also be a delicious way to round out this meal.
I always do my best to research recipes from other cultures thoroughly to represent them as best I can. If this recipe is from your country or culture and you have suggestions for how I can improve its authenticity, please let me know in the comments below! It's important to us to share beloved foods of other cultures with as much accuracy as possible, while also considering things like accessibility of ingredients and ease of preparation for most home cooks.
More Asian-Inspired Recipes
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- Korean Beef Tacos (Bulgogi)
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Did you make this recipe?
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- 1 cup soy sauce
- 1 cup mirin
- ½ cup sake or dry sherry
- ¼ cup water
- ¼ cup brown sugar
- 2 garlic cloves peeled and smashed
- 1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
- Scallions thinly sliced, for garnish
- 2 pounds boneless skinless chicken thigh meat
- 2 bunches green onions
- Kosher salt to taste
- Submerge wooden skewers in a large cup or shallow pan of water to soak for at least 30 minutes.
- Combine soy sauce, mirin, sake, water, brown sugar, garlic, ginger, and the green part of 2 green onions in a medium saucepan on the stovetop over high heat. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium and simmer for about 15-20 minutes until reduced by about half and slightly thickened. It should continue to thicken as it cools. The sauce can be refrigerated for 2-3 months.
- Slice the chicken into 1 ½-inch pieces, trimming away excess fat if necessary. Slice green onions into 1 ½-inch pieces.
- Alternately thread pieces of chicken with pieces of green onion onto skewers that have been soaked in water for 30-60 minutes. You will likely need to fold the chicken a bit if using chicken thigh. Don't be afraid to load the skewers up pretty generously. Each skewer should hold 4 pieces of chicken and 3 green onion pieces. Season with kosher salt.
- Prepare a charcoal grill for medium-high heat or preheat the broiler. Set aside ⅓ of the yakitori sauce to avoid contamination. Grill over direct heat or broil for 4-5 minutes, then flip and brush each skewer with some of the yakitori sauce. Cook another 4-5 minutes on the other side, then flip and brush with sauce again, cooking another 1-2 minutes until the chicken is cooked through and the sauce is caramelized.
- Transfer the finished skewers to a plate and brush with some of the reserved sauce before serving. You could also garnish by sprinkling the skewers with sesame seeds or thinly sliced green onions before serving.
- If you forget to reserve some of the yakitori sauce, you can reheat it to a boil to kill any bacteria transferred by cross contamination from the chicken.
- Don't brush the sauce on until the first side has cooked. The sauce contains sugar which can easily burn on the grill, so you want to wait until the meat is at least partially cooked before brushing it on.
- Thickening your yakitori sauce: If you want to skip simmering the yakitori sauce until it reduces, try mixing 1 tablespoon of cornstarch with 1 tablespoon of cold water to create a slurry. Stir this into the rest of the sauce ingredients once they have come to a boil and stir until thickened and the sauce is no longer cloudy.
- If you have dark soy sauce, you can use hat in place of regular soy sauce. Dark soy sauce is slightly sweeter and thicker than regular soy sauce and will give an even richer color.
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