Our Barbecues Around the World series has already looked at the South African Braai, highlight the fact that barbecues are just as popular in South Africa as they are in the USA and Australia. Today we venture further afield and visit Japan, the land of the rising sun and home to Yakiniku. Or is it the home of Yakiniku? It’s a topic that’s become heavily debated in Japan, so let’s take a look.
Yakiniku means ‘grilled meat’, which is obviously what barbecues are all about doing. It originally referred to the barbecue of western food in Robun Kanagaki’s Seiyo Ryoritsu (Western Food Handbook) in 1872. Since then it has become commonly referred to the Japanese style of cooking bite-sized meat such as beef and offal on gridirons or griddles; either over wood charcoals or with a gas/electric grill. In North America, it is generally referred to as simple a ‘Japanese barbecue’.
There is some debate over whether it should actually be considered Korean cuisine, with Japanese broadcaster NHK stating on one of its programs that “while some tend to think that Yakiniku came from Korea, it was born in post-war Japan”, yet others believe that it was made by Koreans living in Japan it should be considered Korean. It is said by these people that a Korean woman working in Japanese factories before the outbreak of World War II was given some entrails for use as a fertiliser. However, she decided not to put them in her garden and instead cooked and ate them. This apparently began the tradition of Yakiniku, although you’ve got to wonder just what the taste was like!
Whatever the origins of the dish, yakiniku restaurants became popular in Japan during the 20th century. If you ever visit one of these restaurants you’ll be expected to order several different raw ingredients to be delivered to your table. For example, beef is one of the most common meats consumed during a Yakiniku but you can also use types of pork, offal, chicken and seafood. Vegetables will also be cooked alongside the meat; such as shiitake mushrooms, onions, peppers and more.
Each diner is expected to grill their own food, and can do so by using the grill that’s built into the table. After they are cooked you should dip your meat and vegetables in sauces known as tare (this sauce can take a variety of forms depending on the chef, but it’s generally described as a sweeter and thicker form of soy sauce when used for grilling), with the meat being thinly sliced for this purpose. There is usually a variety of side dishes too, such as Korean Kimchi (fermented vegetables with a variety of seasonings) and Bibimbap (warm rice topped with sautéed and seasoned vegetables).
Visiting a yakiniku restaurant is a great social activity, as like your average western barbecue everyone gathers around the food under a party atmosphere. It’s customary to share food in Japan too, so be prepared to share your plate with others at the table.
There’s still a lot more to say about Japanese barbecue food, including Yakitori (grilled chicken), but we’ll leave it there for now as we’re already considering jumping on a plane and jetting off to taste some authentic Japanese barbecues. At home, you may be able to try it by using something like a table top grill, but we think this is definitely something to visit a specialised Japanese restaurant for.