If you want to experience the culinary verities of Japanese culture, it would be impossible to miss their Yakiniku. Though not as popular as sushi or ramen, Yakiniku is pretty much a central feat of today’s Japanese food. In case you do not have any idea what it is, then this article is perfect for you.
In many parts of the world, Yakiniku is translated as Japanese barbecue. Yakiniku literally means grilled meat cuisine in Japanese (yaki means ‘grilled’, while niku means ‘meat’). In Japan, every city is fashioned with local Yakiniku restaurant. In fact, they are very popular in major cities of the country. Though they vary in brands, sizes, and prizes, a trip to one of these shops will give you a feel for what Yakiniku is about. But since we are not all capable of visiting Japan this weekend, a basic introduction will be helpful.
What makes Yakiniku special and different?
Originally, the term Yakiniku specifically refers to the Western-style barbeque. It was first popularized by a Japanese writer named Kanagaki Robun in his Seiyo Ryoritsu in 1872. A short history crash course will be helpful for this part.
Throughout the course of the Meiji Period, Japan re-opened its society to world culture and political economy. The increasing popularity of grilled meat, during this time, has been associated with the Western influence of grilling raw meat over burning charcoal.
During the advent of the Korean War, the then-popular Yakiniku has been influenced by Korean-styled grilling. There’s no wonder why modern day Yakiniku closely resembles Korean grilling cuisine and not the American-style barbeque. It identity evolved through the years of acculturation and innovation.
Trivia: One of the major cultural difference would be the preparation and area where Japanese and American cook their barbeque. In the US, it is pretty rare to see people cooking their barbeque inside their house or on a restaurant table. In Japan, these things are pretty common.
Just like its Korean part, Yakiniku refers to a style of grilling bite-size meat (of different kinds, but commonly with beef, pork, and offal) and vegetables over wood charcoal or gas grill. Since the meat are sliced into thin strips, grilling is usually fast-paced.
Most shops offer both seasoned and unseasoned meat sets. Unseasoned meat is considered staple because it really gives off the fundamental taste of the ingredients. This is especially true when ordering Wagyu (premiere Japanese beef) cuts. As described, again and again, one of the reasons why Yakiniku is distinct from the Western-style is due to their Wagyu and offal. We will talk more about this later.
“Must Know” about Yakiniku
When dining in a Yakiniku restaurant, there are things that you must be familiar with. Some are pretty basic while others are critical to better understand the culture of Japanese dining.
- Like all restaurants, start by checking what’s on their menu. A good Yakiniku food house offers a wide variety of meat (e.g. beef, pork, sheep, seafood, and even intestines and offal). In Korea, restaurants usually specialize one to three types of meat. A Japanese barbeque house will flood you with options. They also offer meat in “sets/course”, “a-la-carte”, and “all you can eat”.If it is your first time, having a course would be a good start. A course usually consists of different meat varieties and meat parts. This is a good option because you’ll have a bit of everything; giving you a reference on what to eat in the future. Compared to course meal, a-la-carte is less expensive as it only offers a specific meat variety/part. But this also means that you can specifically choose the meat that you really like. If you have enough cash, time, and appetite, you can also try “all you can eat” courses (also called tabehodai). Most of these courses are time-based. For example, you can eat all the meat that you want for 100 to 120 minutes. Just remember that many restaurants add charges if you can’t finish the meat that they served.
- Look for best sellers and “extreme” courses. Many Yakiniku restaurants are popular for their best-selling meat and extreme/unique meat. Try it if it interests you. This is a sure way of enjoying your overall restaurant experience.
- Before your order arrives, the staff will first prepare the grill for your table. Currently, the most common grills are those models sunken at the table center (where scorched charcoal will be placed when there are customers). In Japan, some local shops still use shichirin – a portable tabletop grill usually made of clay or ceramic. Some of the modern shops use gas or electric grills. But I think the overall experience is quite different compared to using charcoal. It lacks smoke, perhaps!
- Your order will then be served uncooked. Yes, it’ll be juicy red and raw. But do not panic just yet. This is where the fun starts. Cooking your own food is part of Yakiniku dining culture. In this way, you can decide whether you want your meat to be well-done, medium, or medium rare. Since the meat will be served in thin strips, cooking usually lasts for a couple of minutes or even seconds. Be sure that the grill is very hot when you place the meat. In this way, you can guarantee that the meat will not stick. If you’re not confident about cooking your first plate, you can always ask for assistance. By observing, you’ll eventually learn the ropes. Many restaurants offer Japanese-styled sauce and side dish that’ll incorporate perfectly into the meat. Try all of them!
- Try not to cook in big portions. It’d be harder to observe the state of each meat when they are cramped. Cooking in big portions will likely produce overcooked or stale meat as you set them on a plate. You need to pace yourself. Just cook the meat that you want to chow down. Eating is not a sprint. Yakiniku is a social food. When you’re with your friends, you should encourage everyone to cook their portion. In this way, you can assure a shared experience.
- If you’re in an authentic Japanese restaurant, there’s a good chance that there are also Japanese customers enjoying their meal. As a traditional dining etiquette, Japanese say “Itadakimasu!” just before eating. This can be translated as “Let’s eat”; but also a form of thanking the effort of your host and everyone. You can also try this traditional custom to complete the experience.
- Yakiniku goes perfectly with alcohol like sake and beer. In fact, there are shops that offer both meat and beer buffet! You can consider this option when you visit a Japanese barbeque restaurant the next time. Kampai!
Knowing The Best Cuts
Other than recognizing the set-up and customs, it is also important to appreciate the menu. Most Yakiniku restaurants offer a decent variety of Wagyu. Japan is known globally for its high-grade beef. Wagyu refers to the wide range of Japanese cows that have been domesticated from wild oxen. The most popular is the Japanese Black which comprises approximately 70 percent of Japan’s cattle population.
But the industry is more complex than that. Beef is graded by both yield and marbling. The proportion of available meat is rated from A to C class. Its quality, which includes texture, color, fat, and marbling, is rated from 1 to 5. Japan considers A5 Wagyu as the highest quality (and the most expensive). As a point of comparison, high-end non-Japanese beef commonly offers 6 to 8 percent marbling. An A5 Wagyu, on the other hand, offers as much as 25% marbling! This is not even a competition!
It has superior marbling that it melts like butter when heated. You’ll taste a deep surge of umami as it touches your mouth. Though expensive, the taste and aroma will definitely leave you awestruck! Good quality restaurants offer A4-5 and B4-5 Wagyu.
With regard to the specific part, the most popular cuts are karubi/kalbi (boneless short rib), gyutan (beef tongue), rosu or ‘roast’ (lean cuts around the shoulder and back), zabuton or jo-rosu (special cuts from the ribcage area), misuji (brisket), reba (liver) and maruchou (intestines).
- Those who enjoy the lean and tender part of Wagyu typically order rosu or the cuts around the shoulder and the back. Because this part is served in thicker cuts, cooking takes longer than usual. When grilling, do not flip this part until the bottom is beautifully seared and the juice starts to coat the surface.
- People who love thick marbling pick karubi or jo-rosu. These parts are very tender that they practically melt in your mouth. Karubi is probably the most popular cut in many Yakiniku restaurants. Jo-ruso, however, is the more expensive pick because there’s not much rib meat in cows.
- Intestine and liver are also popular picks for those who love to drink. Because of their strong flavor, they perfectly counteract the taste of alcohol in your palate. In Japan, many enjoy grilled liver and intestine together with cold beer every Friday night.