Cheap Eats:
  Grilled Fowl

In late November/early December 2008, I made a return visit to Japan. I was helping a friend pack up her house, but once the movers came and the house was cleaned, we had a week and a half to play. Late autumn is a fabulous time to visit Japan. The colors were amazing, the reds and golds of autumn leaves painting the countryside vividly.

Tokyo and Kyoto were repeats, but this time, I also visited Shizuoka, Nagoya, and Osaka, as well as a few small towns where we got off the train because they looked nice. Shizuoka, home of Mount Fuji, is famous for green tea and wasabi roots. Shizuoka-shi (that is, the city of Shizuoka, capital of the province of Shizuoka) was once home to Tokugawa Ieyasu, who founded the powerful Tokugawa shogunate. So there is plenty of history here, as well as gardens, temples, and views of Mt. Fuji.

A few miles south of the city, I visited the famous Tea Museum. (Should you get there, be advised, nothing is in English, so go with someone who knows Japanese.) The museum contained everything from antique tea-processing equipment to teapots from around the world. We enjoyed a modified tea ceremony and even had the opportunity to use traditional grinding stones to hand- grind our own green tea powder. The museum, perched on a mountainside, surrounded by emerald fields of perfectly trimmed tea bushes, also offered us a splendid view of Mt. Fuji.

In Nagoya, we visited impressive Nagoya Castle and the wonderful Tokugawa Museum, which houses, among other artifacts, the original Tale of the Genji, tales of court life in the Japan of the shoguns—written and illustrated during the time of the shoguns. The food specialties of this region are kishimen noodles, which I enjoyed in a small, traditional noodle house, and sukiyaki, which I enjoyed at a large, modern joint with roughly the ambience of a Denny’s. (We were meeting friends of my friend, and it was their choice. Good food, though.)

Osaka is considered the food capital of Japan—which, given the obsession with food everywhere in Japan, is really saying something. We visited Osaka Castle, just to see something that wasn’t food-related, and then we spent the rest of our time exploring the city’s culinary delights. Half a day was needed for the “food streets,” where markets and food stalls compete for your attention. We admired displays of fish, vegetables, pickles, and other delights, and sampled local specialties. The biggest “wow” was at a shop where the owner handed us a sample of something she identified as a real specialty of Osaka—tempura- fried pickled ginger slices. Yowza.

The “food streets” were a few miles from the “restaurant streets,” so we were able to work off our morning snacking by the time we’d done a bit more sightseeing and made our way to the overwhelming choices of that section of town. After a couple hours of wandering, we found a place that offered grill-your-own wagyu beef. We had three different cuts of beef, plus a sizeable stack of veggies. While you can ruin yourself financially dining in Japan, you don’t have to, and this spot only set me back about $65 for the two of us.

I could spend pages and pages telling you about the wonders of Kyoto. Not bombed at all during World War II, it is in many places delightfully untouched, with blocks and blocks of charmingly venerable shops and homes. There are Buddhist temples (1,600) and Shinto shrines (400) everywhere. I saw several of the most famous on my previous trip, and still had trouble choosing from what remained. Perhaps the most remarkable was Kiyomizu Temple, which is high on a mountainside, and which possesses a massive, wooden terrace that juts out over the valley, offering incredible views of Kyoto and the surrounding forests.

Kyoto may not be the food capital Osaka is, but it’s close. I again visited the fabulous Nishiki Food Market, with its myriad food stalls filled with fresh fish, fresh produce, pickles, tofu, and more. I browsed through the over-the-top food floor of Kyoto’s Takashimaya, but also delighted in all the little street stalls, noodle shops, and specialty places.

In Tokyo, Shizuoka, and Kyoto, I was reminded that Japanese train stations are great places for food. Options range from spots for commuting locals to grab a bite to high-end places for serious power- dining. The high-priced places will always be on an upper floor, but the ground floor and basement will offer reasonably priced delights. In the basement of the Tokyo train station, I enjoyed some of the best tempura I've ever had.

In the Kyoto train station, on the ground floor, we dined at Kurama, a place my friend says features wonderful examples of local Kyoto specialties, including homemade, fresh tofu. I enjoyed the fresh tofu, but my favorite things on the menu were the chawan-mushi (an egg custard full of mushrooms and shrimp), the smoked duck (so good, I ordered a second plate), and a couple of items from the kushiyaki menu (kushiyaki means stuff grilled on a stick)—the crispy chicken skin and white leeks, both great.

The term "yaki" in the above word is something you'll see often. It is generally translated as "fried," but it means anything that is cooked on a griddle or grill—and the griddles can included custom-shaped equipment for specific dishes, such as the griddle covered with rounded indentations used to make takoyaki, or octopus- filled "pancake" balls. (Yum.)

Tori means “fowl,” so yakitori means grilled fowl, usually chicken. Pieces of chicken are threaded on skewers, basted with a flavorful sauce, and cooked on a charcoal grill or under the broiler. It is a remarkably delicious dish, and wonderfully easy to prepare. Enjoy.

(Grilled Fowl)

1 lb. chicken thighs or breasts, cut into bite-size pieces

1 bunch scallions/green onions, cut into two-inch pieces

¼ cup dry sake

¾ cup mirin (sweet rice wine)

¾ cup soy sauce

1 Tbs. sugar

Thread the chicken onto small skewers. (If you’re using bamboo skewers, soak them in water for half an hour, so they don’t catch fire.) Thread the scallions on separate skewers.

These can be made on a charcoal grill or in the broiler. You need moderately high heat (about 400 degrees for the broiler, but don’t put the rack at the very top—second spot down should do it). Preheat whatever you’re using.

Combine the sake, mirin, soy sauce, and sugar in a small saucepan. Bring to the boil, and cook for a few minutes, until it begins to thicken slightly. Turn off the heat. Arrange the skewers on the grill or on a broiler pan. Place the scallions as far from the main heat source as possible. Grill or broil the chicken for 3 minutes. Dip the chicken and scallions in the basting sauce, coating thoroughly. Turn the skewers over as you put them back on the grill. Cook for another 3 minutes. Dip each skewer again, again turning them as you return them to the grill. Then, cook till chicken is done, about another 2 or 3 minutes. (Remove onions earlier than chicken, if they are getting too charred.)

Boil the sauce for half a minute (to cook any raw chicken juice that has been added to the mix). When chicken is cooked, dip it once more into the sauce, and serve.

Serves 4.


While it will likely cost less at one of the area’s Asian superstores, mirin and sake can now be found at most mainstream grocery stores.

Unused sauce can be kept in the refrigerator for a few weeks, as long as it was boiled after you dipped the raw chicken into it.

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