After a brief hiatus from Japanese food I’m back with some izakaya food. Izakayas are bars that in addition to the usual lineup of sakes, shochus and beers, have an eclectic menu of bar foods. They’re the kind of places Japanese salary-men hit up après-work to get hammered and fed. The menus are generally large and run the gamut from questionable “fusion” offerings involving mayonnaise, to hardcore Japanese dishes like grilled beef tongue and chicken intestine.
After 20 years of nothing but sushi restaurants, we’re finally starting to get more izakayas stateside, but there are few that have the same quality to price ratio as the ones littering the metropolitan cityscapes of Japan. That’s why I love putting together izakaya style meals at home. The dishes typically come together quickly and it’s certainly more fun than eating a lump of meat with starch and veggies.
Tsukune is a generic term referring to any meat or seafood that’s ground up, seasoned and reformed into balls, sticks or patties. They come boiled, fried, or grilled over charcoal, much like the western sausage.
Chicken tsukune is a common dish you’ll find on the menu of almost any yakitori joint. Aside from the fact they’re made with minced chicken thighs and fat, the seasonings, shapes, and cooking methods vary from place to place. Depending on what region of Japan you’re in, you might find a skewer of tsukune shellaced in a thick layer of caramelized terriyaki sauce while elsewhere your tsukune might come on a paddle lightly sprinkled with kombu salt.
Made with good ingredients and the right meat to fat ratio, tsukune is tender and juicy, bursting with flavour with each bite. Because the meat is minced, rather than ground it retains some of its texture, avoiding the rubbery mystery meat problem that ground meats can have. This preparation also allows the chicken to absorb the seasonings better, giving it a depth of flavour that’s quite unexpected from the humble meat that tastes like everything.
For my preparation, I like to use thigh meat for its flavour and higher fat content but I take it one step further and mince in the skin which releases collagen as it cooks. The seasonings are fairly run-of-the-mill Japanese with one notable exception. I microplane dried shiitake mushrooms to create a powder that adds a bump in umami without interfering with the texture of the meat.
As for the sauce, I like simple preparations using the best ingredients, so I’m not a huge fan of covering things up with terriyaki sauce. A sprinkle of smoked sea salt with a splash of lime juice rounds out the dish nicely and if you still feel like it’s missing something, make a slowed cooked egg to dip it in. The custardy egg white and silky smooth yolk make for the perfect accompaniment.
Using this base recipe, try swapping in other meats and seasonings. Pork with a little Chinese five spice is lovely, as is beef with minced kimchi. If you’re more of a seafood person, try shrimp and scallops with green shiso leaves.
1 small dried shiitake mushroom
1 tsp grated ginger
1 scallion minced
4 skin on chicken thighs (about 1.5 lbs)
1 Tbs mirin
2 tsp sugar
1 tsp soy sauce
1 tsp kosher salt (less if you use table salt)
smoked sea salt and lime wedges for serving
Use a Microplane to grate the shiitake mushroom into a mixing bowl. Grate the ginger into the bowl. Then mince the scallion and add it to the bowl.
Wash and thoroughly dry the chicken thighs. If they have bones remove them along with any tough connective tissue, but leave the skin and fat intact. Remove the skins of 2 of the thighs and put them in a bowl along with a little vegetable oil and set aside. Using a sharp chef’s knife or clever, mince the chicken meat by hand. You could use a food processor or meat grinder to save time, but the texture will be suffer. You want to get the meat, fat and skin minced into pieces that are roughly 1/16″ to 1/8″.
Add the chicken to the bowl along with the rest of the seasonings and mix thoroughly to combine. Cover and refrigerate for at least 6 hours or up to a day. Pre-soak thick wooden skewers or wooden paddles in water to prevent them from burning.
When you’re ready to cook the chicken, move the oven rack to the top position and turn on the broiler. If you are using wooden paddles, shape the chicken mixture onto the top of the paddles in an even layer about 3/4″ thick, then cover any exposed part of the handle with foil. If you’re using skewers, shape a cylinder of meat around each skewer. Slice the reserved chicken skin and smooth it onto the surface of the ground chicken meat. Place the chicken to the right and left of the heating element, then swap sides when one side is brown.
You can either slice one open or use a thermometer to test for doness. Sprinkle with a little smoked sea salt and serve with a wedge of lime. You can also serve with a slow cooked or soft poached egg to dip the meat in.