Chicken, the world’s most consumed poultry, is treated with great reverence at chef Toshi Sakamaki’s Los Angeles restaurant, Yakitoriya. Destin Tay learns to prepare the humble bird in more ways than one from Sakamaki’s first cookbook.
Chicken Genius: The Art of Toshi Sakamaki's Yakitori Cuisine
At a glance
Browse through the menu of any self-respecting izakaya and you are bound to find a kushiyaki section. After all, there’s no better comfort food after a long day of work than skewers of beautifully charred, grilled meats. Ostentatious cuts of meats like Wagyu beef or Kurobuta pork are usually the focus at more upscale izakayas, while the humble yakitori plays second fiddle.
Toshi Sakamaki does things differently. The purist has dedicated his Los Angeles establishment to only serving skewers of chicken, paying tribute to the essence of yakitori (a portmanteau for the Japanese words for grill and chicken). Ever since its opening in late 2010, Sakamaki has quietly toiled in his unassuming restaurant, methodically spinning each skewer to perfection. There are no plaques or certificates gracing his restaurant walls, yet Yakitoriya counts Nobu Matsuhita – who wrote the foreword for this book – as one of its many die-hard fans.
Chicken Genius: The Art of Toshi Sakamaki’s Yakitori Cuisine by Bernard Radfar is a love letter to Sakamaki’s deep approach to yakitori. While a small portion of the book contains recipes of some of the side dishes that are available at Yakitoriya, the main focus is, on the preparation of the various chicken skewers. From the basics of filleting a whole chicken to the handling of fragile sweetbreads, this book is essentially an encyclopedia of chicken butchery.
With over 300 full-color images spread across the 164-page turner, it’s easy to see why Chicken Genius is a must-have addition to a foodie’s home library. There is no lengthy text; the pictures tell a story on their own. The butchery section of the book stands out, displaying photos on how to prepare different parts of the chicken in an almost cut-by-cut manner.
The layout of the book is similarly succinct. It wastes no time in introducing readers to methods and techniques of making yakitori, mainly the equipment required and the ingredients used. For the former, I make do with a barbecue pit
I have at home, but the book recommends a narrow rectangular grill, which makes it easier to manage the skewers. Binchotan is a must-have. The specialty Japanese white charcoal may be more expensive than regular ones but it burns at a higher temperature and does not produce any smoke or ash that would affect the taste. (Tip: Redmart sells it at $10-12 a kilo.)
The art of making yakitori is pretty straightforward: start by preparing the sauces that will be used to glaze the meats. The book provides three different sauces (regular tori sauce, sweet sauce and spicy), which are designed to suit certain cuts of meat. Then comes the butchering techniques, where the level of difficulty depends on the cuts that are being prepared. And finally, getting the binchotan white-hot in order to grill each skewer to a beautiful char.
Apart from trying to emulate Sakamaki’s work of toiling over hot coals, I got to test out Yakitoriya’s stellar side dishes. I managed to create a luxed up Chicken Wing Confit despite using the technique usually reserved for stronger tasting poultry like duck. Love making your own chicken stock? Reserve the fat that accumulates after cooling the broth. Combine that with some vegetable oil to impart loads of flavour into the confit. Sakamaki also includes a helpful recipe for the chicken stock he uses in Yakitoriya; he calls for a gentler, longer cook for the broth, which results in a deeper, more robust chicken flavour. If you are unable to get your hands on superbly fresh chicken, he suggests
adding a slice of ginger into the pot. The Japanese traditionally add this into pork broth as a purification technique, and it works wonders on older chicken carcasses.
From his careful extraction of sweetbreads from each carcass to the use of multiple chickens to make one skewer of sweetbreads, Sakamaki will make you look at this humble poultry in a different light. It also gives you the perfect excuse to cook with binchotan, and work on the art of Japanese grilling. Chicken Genius will be available for sale on 9 July for US$25/SG$34 via Amazon.
Chef Toshi Sakamaki