Start with the pork belly, three pieces, each about an inch square; thread them on a skewer, sprinkle lightly with salt and grill quickly over a hot flame. Eat them as soon as they come off the fire: The outside is browned and delicately crisp, the inside chewy and juicy. The pork flavor is deep and profound, with an almost subliminal hint of wood smoke.
At Shin-Sen-Gumi restaurant in Gardena, grilled food means so much more than steaks and burgers. It is the essence of Japanese cooking: a basic food treated simply, yet the result is way beyond anything that either ingredient or technique would seem to promise individually.
The amazing thing is that making them is so easy you can do it on your own backyard barbecue. In fact, compared with hamburgers (with their flare-ups), grilled pork belly is a breeze.
Welcome to the world of yakitori, where equipped with only a grill and some bamboo skewers, you can create a feast. You need no special techniques or complicated sauces, and all of the ingredients can be found quite easily at your nearest Asian grocery.
This summer, instead of repeating the same endless cycle of chicken breasts and steaks, hamburgers and hot dogs, why not try grilling on the wild side?
Traditionally, yakitori specifically refers to grilled chicken parts (yaki means skewers and tori means chicken). And most yakitori restaurants do serve an encyclopedic assortment of poultry parts, including not just thighs and breasts, but also gizzards and crisped cartilage. Modern usage, though, broadens the definition to include a wide variety of grilled foods.
One of the best and most popular yakitori restaurants in Southern California is Shin-Sen-Gumi, located in a strip mall on Western Avenue just north of the 405 freeway. It’s a little place, basically just a bar and a long banquette, like an old-school sushi spot.
Because it’s so small, there’s often a line waiting outside, a mix of Japanese businessmen from the nearby auto companies, young hipsters who look straight out of “Tokyo Pop” and the occasional foodie.
Sit at the bar if you can. That’s the best place to appreciate the energy of the young kitchen staff. Almost all of them seem to be under 25, and they’re clad in black T-shirts that look like they came from one of the Japanese rock bands providing the restaurant’s soundtrack.
Their friendliness is almost overwhelming. Enter and you’re saluted with raucous shouts from the staff. Buy the crew a beer and you’ll be treated to an oration that sounds like a nominating speech at a political convention.
A plate of cabbage salad, lightly dressed with soy and vinegar, is placed in front of you. That’s a good tip for planning your dinner at home: A side dish of something crisp and a little tart is a welcome counterpoint to all of the rich-tasting grilled food.
Then you’ll get the list. How varied can a grill meal be? There are 40 items on the regular menu at Shin-Sen-Gumi plus a regularly changing list of daily specials. In addition, there is a full menu of nongrilled foods -- mostly side dishes to complement the main menu.
The cooking action takes place in full view on a rectangular grill, roughly 4 feet long and less than a foot wide, fired with oak charcoal. There are usually a couple of chefs working at a time, and as they skip back and forth along the length of the grill working the skewers, they look like they’re playing an especially spirited xylophone duet.
Order widely but not too deeply, at least at first. Get a good sampling, but remember that in yakitori as in sushi, you’ll have plenty of opportunity to order more. And because nothing on the regular menu costs more than $4 (and most things are less than $2.50), you can experiment.
Could anything be better than that grilled bit of pork belly? Well, yes, actually. Skewer it around a torn fragment of shiso leaf before you grill it and you have something approaching heaven. The aromatic leaf, powerful as basil or mint but with its own distinctive perfume, adds another dimension to that wonderful grilled pork savor (yes, that’s all there is to it -- who couldn’t do that?).
Or try wrapping the pork belly around a bouquet of earthy enoki mushrooms or fresh green asparagus. Or maybe wrap a thin strip of bacon around a cherry tomato.
Or switch to chicken: juicy dark meat marinated briefly in mirin (sweet rice wine), sake and soy and served plain or skewered with green onion. Or perfectly cooked breast, its moist texture and slightly bland flavor punctuated by a riotous dot of fiery wasabi, astringent ume (pickled plum), or spicy-sour yuzu (fragrant citrus) and chile paste.
Need a break from all that meat? How about little green shishito peppers, served in a shallow slick of soy and buried under a drift of shaved, dried bonito flakes? Or fresh shiitake mushrooms simply brushed with a little of the same marinade you used for the chicken?
The pleasure of yakitori is in its variety. Essentially, we’re talking about an all-grill tasting menu. While most grill meals revolve around at most two or three stars, there’s an entire universe in a yakitori dinner.
Whether you’re ordering at a yakitori bar or grilling it at home, start with simple, punchy flavors -- maybe some of that fabulous pork belly or some chicken parts. Progress to more complicated preparations such as bacon-wrapped cherry tomatoes or the chicken thighs marinated in yakitori sauce and wrapped around green onions. Lighten the mix with some vegetables -- shishito peppers or shiitake mushrooms.
Try it at home
At the yakitori bar, if you still have room, finish with one of the grilled onigiri -- sticky rice formed into a triangle and stuffed with ume, shiso or bonito. Grilled slowly over a low fire, the rice on the outside gets brown and chewy.
This is about as close as Southern California comes to a true tapas-style meal. Try a few things that look good. Drink some beer. Talk with your friends or whoever is next to you at the counter. See what they like. Order more. Repeat until sated.
Then, next time you crave it, grill some at home. It’s surprisingly easy -- in fact, most of the advance preparation is done for you. Japanese markets stock most of the meat ready to go: thinly sliced pork belly (even Berkshire, or Kurobuta, pork belly is available) and boneless chicken breasts and thighs, with and without skin.
The only sauce you’ll need is a simple mixture of mirin, soy sauce and sake, and that goes mainly on chicken thighs. Usually the mirin and soy are in equal amounts. Cooks have their own preferences for what proportion of sake to use; some prefer leaving out the sake altogether. Similarly, cooks vary on the inclusion of other ingredients such as garlic, green onions and ginger.
I like a blend of equal parts of mirin, soy and sake. That seems to give the best balance of flavor between sauce and chicken. Less sake and you taste more sauce than meat; more sake and the sauce flavor fades into the background.
Keep in mind that yakitori sauce is a much different and more subtle thing than familiar teriyaki sauce. The latter is appreciated for its thick, shiny texture (and sticky sweet flavor). Teri translates roughly as glossy or lustrous. Yakitori sauce, on the other hand, is a seasoning, not a glaze.
Soak the bamboo skewers in water for at least half an hour before threading on the food. This won’t prevent the skewers from burning, but it will certainly slow it down (there is a good reason yakitori grills are so narrow -- it keeps the skewer tips off the fire). Also, short skewers are easier to handle than longer ones, and flat skewers (particularly the ones that are forked) keep the food from rolling around during turning.
Devote half an hour or so early in the day to assembling the skewers, then refrigerate them, covered tightly with plastic wrap until you’re ready to cook. Because most everything is cut into small pieces, the actual grilling will only take about 20 minutes at most.
The only tricky part of throwing a yakitori dinner is working the fire. The skewers need to be cooked over a hot enough flame that the meat crisps and browns, but you also need a safe spot to move them in case of flare-ups when the fat renders and spills onto the fire.
The solution is a two-stage fire: Mound the coals along one side of the grill; this will be the hot part of the fire (it’ll be ready when you can hold your hand just above grill level and only count to three comfortably). The opposite side will be cool enough that the fire won’t flame up, but warm enough that the food will continue cooking through. You can also cook the skewers on a cast-iron grill pan on the stove. Preheat it well over a medium-high flame.
Whichever method you choose, it seems to work best if you keep the food moving rather than give the pieces a single turn. Cook the skewers on one side long enough to give them a good grill mark, then flip them and sear the other side. Move them to a slightly cooler area and turn a couple of times more until the outside is deeply browned and the food is cooked through.
Just like at a yakitori-ya, it’s best to cook things in a series rather than all at once, so they can be eaten while they are still hot. Working a grill this way will keep you hopping, and you’ll need to give it your full attention. But on the other hand, the cooking isn’t hard and it doesn’t take long.
Just make sure you have plenty of beer on hand. And if one of your guests pours you one, it couldn’t hurt to have a little speech prepared -- just to get the full Shin-Sen-Gumi experience.