COOK­BOOK CRITIC

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.

Epicure - - CONTENTS -

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.

Road Test

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.

Ver­dict

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

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