Chicken Tsukune (Japanese chicken sausage)

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.

  • http://www.slim-shoppin.com/ Jennifer

    I love coming to your site because I have very little knowledge of the foods you make. This looks awesome. Thanks Marc for taking the time to make this!

  • http://www.slim-shoppin.com Jennifer

    I love coming to your site because I have very little knowledge of the foods you make. This looks awesome. Thanks Marc for taking the time to make this!

  • http://elrasbaking.blogspot.com/ Elra

    I don’t think I’ve seen this wooden paddle before, should try to look for it in Japanese store next time. Recipe sounds delicious.
    Cheers,
    Elra

    • marc

      One of the paddles (the small one) is an ordinary mixing tool you can get at any kitchen store. The other one is a bamboo rice paddle used to get rice out of the rice cooker. Really any flat cooking utensil that won’t melt would work.

  • http://elrasbaking.blogspot.com Elra

    I don’t think I’ve seen this wooden paddle before, should try to look for it in Japanese store next time. Recipe sounds delicious.
    Cheers,
    Elra

    • marc

      One of the paddles (the small one) is an ordinary mixing tool you can get at any kitchen store. The other one is a bamboo rice paddle used to get rice out of the rice cooker. Really any flat cooking utensil that won’t melt would work.

  • http://chefholly.typepad.com/holly_hadsell_el_hajji/ Holly

    We have a restaurant right around the corner call Tsukunaya (SP), I love their food, they just put it on a skewer but I like the paddle idea. It is a neat restaurant because it has different areas to eat, a traditional Tatami Room, a bar and a western dining room. It is really fun and very good.

  • http://chefholly.typepad.com/holly_hadsell_el_hajji/ Holly

    We have a restaurant right around the corner call Tsukunaya (SP), I love their food, they just put it on a skewer but I like the paddle idea. It is a neat restaurant because it has different areas to eat, a traditional Tatami Room, a bar and a western dining room. It is really fun and very good.

  • http://www.applepiepatispate.com/ Jude

    Great idea — never thought of using shiitake mushrooms in this way. Dried mushrooms are perfect for microplaning.

  • http://www.applepiepatispate.com Jude

    Great idea — never thought of using shiitake mushrooms in this way. Dried mushrooms are perfect for microplaning.

  • http://www.kibelesofrasi.com/ banu gökşin – tule – istanbul

    really different and delicious meals are you doing …

  • http://www.kibelesofrasi.com banu gökşin – tule – istanbul

    really different and delicious meals are you doing …

  • http://souvlakiforthesoul.com/ Peter G

    Wow! These are impressive. The simplest things often are…mmm What other bar snacks do you have up your sleeve?

  • http://souvlakiforthesoul.com Peter G

    Wow! These are impressive. The simplest things often are…mmm What other bar snacks do you have up your sleeve?

  • http://janetching.wordpress.com/ Janet

    Hi Marc, I like your recipes alot, will give some inspiration to my future cooking ; )

  • http://janetching.wordpress.com Janet

    Hi Marc, I like your recipes alot, will give some inspiration to my future cooking ; )

  • http://www.kalofagas.ca/ Peter

    These remind me of Viet Chao-Tom and yes, inject all the flavours you want.

  • http://www.kalofagas.ca Peter

    These remind me of Viet Chao-Tom and yes, inject all the flavours you want.

  • http://www.sevenspoons.net/ tara

    Although it is sunny today, the cold weather has had me craving the fresh, direct flavors of Asia – just to contrast all the grey outside my window. These look ridiculously delicious and I love the hit of lime to finish.

  • http://www.sevenspoons.net tara

    Although it is sunny today, the cold weather has had me craving the fresh, direct flavors of Asia – just to contrast all the grey outside my window. These look ridiculously delicious and I love the hit of lime to finish.

  • http://foodalogue.com/ Joan Nova

    This looks delicious and it opens a whole new arena for recipe development and presentation. Thanks!

  • http://foodalogue.com Joan Nova

    This looks delicious and it opens a whole new arena for recipe development and presentation. Thanks!

  • http://memoriesinthebaking.blogspot.com/ Marysol

    I love the fact that you used chicken thighs for the sausage. Not only because it’s almost impossible to dry it out, but also because I think it’s the most flavorful part of the chicken.
    And, as always, presentation gets an A+.

  • http://memoriesinthebaking.blogspot.com Marysol

    I love the fact that you used chicken thighs for the sausage. Not only because it’s almost impossible to dry it out, but also because I think it’s the most flavorful part of the chicken.
    And, as always, presentation gets an A+.

  • http://www.pigpigscorner.com/ pigpigscorner

    Love the presentation!

  • http://www.pigpigscorner.com pigpigscorner

    Love the presentation!

  • http://www.talidabakes.com/ talida

    I myself made a Thai-style chicken sausage the other day, flavoring it with green curry paste and adding in extra mint, basil, cilantro, and chili.

    Nice tip on mincing in the skin as well.

  • http://www.talidabakes.com talida

    I myself made a Thai-style chicken sausage the other day, flavoring it with green curry paste and adding in extra mint, basil, cilantro, and chili.

    Nice tip on mincing in the skin as well.

  • http://www.eatshowandtell.com/ linda

    I’ve never experienced Izakaya in Japan, however my partner just came back and exclaimed it the best experience ever.. I guess with your help, I’d be able to have my own izakaya experience in the comfort of my home.

  • http://www.eatshowandtell.com linda

    I’ve never experienced Izakaya in Japan, however my partner just came back and exclaimed it the best experience ever.. I guess with your help, I’d be able to have my own izakaya experience in the comfort of my home.

  • http://www.eatingclubvancouver.com/ _ts of [eatingclub] vancouver

    Ooh, meat farce on wooden paddles! Very nice. Although, I don’t think we have enough wooden paddles (spoons) seeing as each person in the house would probably eat 6 or more of these in one sitting! ;D

  • http://www.eatingclubvancouver.com _ts of [eatingclub] vancouver

    Ooh, meat farce on wooden paddles! Very nice. Although, I don’t think we have enough wooden paddles (spoons) seeing as each person in the house would probably eat 6 or more of these in one sitting! ;D

  • http://www.openkyoto.com/ Peko-P

    Oh, yeah. I forgot about this one. Cooking stuff on the rice paddle.

    There is a restaurant that I used to go to in Kyoto where they mixed niku-miso (I think it was niku) and chopped scallions on a rice paddle and then grilled it and served it with rice. It is great, the wood of the paddle is smoking when it arrives at your table. You scrape off the miso onto your rice and yum, yum, yum.

    Somehow I see you popularizing that one in the USA.

    Also, thanks for commenting on my mege udon article the other day. I am really hope that you will create your own version of that recipe.

  • http://www.openkyoto.com Peko-P

    Oh, yeah. I forgot about this one. Cooking stuff on the rice paddle.

    There is a restaurant that I used to go to in Kyoto where they mixed niku-miso (I think it was niku) and chopped scallions on a rice paddle and then grilled it and served it with rice. It is great, the wood of the paddle is smoking when it arrives at your table. You scrape off the miso onto your rice and yum, yum, yum.

    Somehow I see you popularizing that one in the USA.

    Also, thanks for commenting on my mege udon article the other day. I am really hope that you will create your own version of that recipe.

  • http://www.mykindoffood.blogspot.com/ Hungry Gal

    I never would have thought to microplane a dried shitake… wonderful. I will be trying that the next time I make dumplings.

    BTW – Your photos are exquisite.

  • http://www.mykindoffood.blogspot.com Hungry Gal

    I never would have thought to microplane a dried shitake… wonderful. I will be trying that the next time I make dumplings.

    BTW – Your photos are exquisite.

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  • http://www.cookdazzle.com/tools.html cooking utensils

    I like this recipe with its wonderful explanation.  The japanese chicken is greatest and more delicious. Very good work about this recipes.

  • naeda

    Thank you so much for this recipe.
    My husband always order tsukune, when we visit our favorit izakaya.
    Yesterday I did the tsukune without sugar and dried shiitake, but with some drops stevia, garlic and zucchini.
    I fried it without paddle or skewer, only in the pan, because I like fast and easy cooking. ;)
    The taste was so original!

  • Linda I.

    Hi Marc! I have a couple questions. What type of smoked sea salt do you use? Did you make or buy the Kombu salt? I am also of Japanese decent and I have never heard of Kombu salt only shiokombu. Is this what you are referring to?

    • http://norecipes.com Marc Matsumoto

      I used a cherrywood smoked salt, because it has a milder flavor than hickory or mesquite. Applewood would also work. As for kombu salt, I think it’s made by boiling seawater with kombu and powderizing the resulting crystals, it’s not the same thing as shiokombu.

    • Linda I.

      Thank you for your reply. Btw, I am making a lower sodium version of your Tsukune recipe, skipping the kosher salt, using low sodium soy sauce and increasing the ginger to make up for the salt. I’d like to offer the smoked sea salt as a salt option for our guests who want it.

      Just wondering if you have ever done a modern version of osechi ryori. My sister and I are preparing for Oshougatsu (New Years) and have been looking for recipes with a modern twist. They’re very hard to find. I’d appreciate any ideas or references to other sites or books that you may know of.

      Thank you and Happy New Year!

      • http://norecipes.com Marc Matsumoto

        I’ve actually been meaning to do osechi ryouri remixed, but always seem to be away during New Years. Maybe next year?

        • Linda I.

          Okaaaay! We’re looking forward to next year!

  • frankiecarl

    Where can I buy the wooden spoons to cook on? They look smaller than rice paddles.
    Thank you for your help :)

    • http://norecipes.com Marc Matsumoto

      Hi Frankiecarl, Lately I’ve been skipping the wooden spoon and just using 2 skewers. Basically I shape the chicken into long flat sausages and stick 2 skewers in about 1/4-inch apart. It cooks more evenly than using paddles.

      • frankiecarl

        Ok, I will give it a try. I really want to make this because it sounds great. Thank you for your time and help :)

  • Carnation Rebellion

    I finally got arounf to making this. day 1 I ate it with bread day 2 I was lazy and it was late I had some soup and these on skewer and I decided to give it a go. It was fantastic. I felt like I was really buying and eating street food without the excess grease

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