No23 [Restaurant] Yakiniku, the next food boom


Yakiniku, the next food boom

Everybody knows about sushi and ramen, but there is also another intriguing type of Japanese restaurant to discover.

Sushi and ramen are already both hugely popular outside Japan, reaching the hallowed status of a lunchtime staple on our streets. But yakiniku, the third in the trinity of popular restaurant types in Japan, is still far less well known. This is a shame as it is one of the most vibrant and sensually enjoyable of all Japanese food experiences. The word is made up of two characters, meaning “grilled” and “meat” – which gives you the basic idea. It’s a style of cookery that involves grilling different cuts meat to juicy, charred perfection over gas, electric or charcoal burners.

Yakiniku restaurants are a major draw in Japan, and can be found across neighborhoods in all the major cities. They are invariably packed with large groups or couples. Diners make their selection from a wide range of cuts, from the familiar loin, short rib and sirloin, to the less familiar like harami (meat cut from around the diaphragm) and some places serve a selection of nose-to-tail innards for more experienced yakiniku connoisseurs. The meat used is mostly beef but pork, seafood and vegetables also make an appearance on menus. Some restaurants will use Japan’s justly prized wagyu beef, richly marbled and tender. Your order placed, you then wait and eventually plates of raw meat will be brought to your table, sliced extra thin into delectable bite sized portions. Staff will have already removed a cover from in the centre of your table and preheated the concealed barbecue grill, ready for you to begin cooking straight away. In most yakiniku restaurants these will be gas or electric-heated, but some more upscale places use charcoal. Grilling is thought of as a healthy way to eat meat in Japan, far healthier than frying, as any excess fat drains away beneath the grill. The delicious pieces of grilled meat are then dunked in sauce and eaten directly or sometimes wrapped up in a lettuce leaf. Yakiniku restaurants pride themselves on their sauces, supplying a wide range of different flavours to complement the types of meat you have ordered. Tongue will often be paired with a fine sea-salt, other cuts with lemon juice or perhaps with a sweet, thick sauce (known as “tare”) that is often made in-house to a secret recipe. It’s up to you to experiment with what works – salty, spicy, sweet or tart. The merits of the yakiniku approach to dining are many. Firstly, since you’re doing all the grilling yourself, you can choose precisely how you like your meat cooked. Prefer a heavy char? Simple, just leave the thin slices on the grill for another 30 seconds until they begin to blacken at the edges. Immediacy and vibrancy are also hallmarks of the yakiniku experience. In no yakiniku restaurant are you ever faced with a plate of food that seems to have journeyed halfway across town to get to you. Here, your food is just a chopstick’s journey away from your mouth. Just as sushi is best eaten at the counter, the rice still bearing the warmth of the chef’s hands, yakiniku is best straight from the grill, the heat, the char and the juices combining to create an umami explosion. Finally, yakiniku restaurants showcase another side of Japan, far away from the austere minimalism of sushi and refined kaiseki. Yakiniku restaurants are loud and a little rowdy, a place for large groups of friends or salaryman workmates to let down their hair after a long day at the corporate coalface. The old stereotype of the serious and impassive Japanese is shown the door as people laugh and chatter, shouting out orders for more meat. People sit elbow-to elbow, jostling for space around the hot grills, chopsticks darting out to seize choice morsels. This smoky, brash sense of bonhomie is fuelled by huge frosted mugs of beer, or smaller cups of sake and shochu. The yakiniku experience is always full-on, full-flavoured, fun and exciting. Londoners will get their first chance to sample the full Japanese yakiniku experience this late July, when the capital’s first yakiniku restaurant Kintan opens its doors. Ride the latest and boldest Japanese food wave!