WHEN HAROLD FIELDS left New Orleans in 2005 to visit his wife’s family in Japan, it was supposed to be a short trip. But Hurricane Katrina left them stranded overseas, and he found himself falling in love with a common Tokyo street food: yakitori (direct translation: “grilled bird”). “As a chef, I love how rustic it is,” says Fields. “It’s so simple, but the level of discipline required for its preparation is so great.”
Fields, who now runs Seattle-based catering company Umami Kushi (umamikushi.com), says real yakitori’s all about the sauce. In Japan yakitori is made with every part of the chicken, and it’s usually prepared one of two ways: cooked with either shio (salt) or tare, the typical yakitori sauce of mirin, soy sauce, sugar, and sometimes sake. “A lot of people confuse tare with teriyaki sauce,” says Fields. But teriyaki involves ginger and some sort of citrus, and it’s thickened with cornstarch. Tare meanwhile is made with the natural gelatin from chicken bones.
Tare is to the yakitori maker what a sourdough starter is to a bread baker; it’s precious as gold, and every shop’s sauce has its own flavor profile. Cold, it looks like the essence of 10,000 good chicken stocks condensed into a quart of Japanese Jell-O. Once it’s melted in a small pan on the edge of the grill, where skewers loaded with chicken get a quick dip before their turn on the heat, it turns a deep mahogany. And every time the cook cleans up, the remaining tare goes into the next batch, so over time, it inherits the flavors of previous batches. As the tare glazes the chicken, absorbing smoke from the Japanese hardwood charcoal Fields insists on shipping over for its purity, it brings a hint of all batches past.
The poster child of yakitori is negima, sticks laden with chicken thighs and leeks. But Fields also introduces folks to the chicken offal—gizzards, livers—that makes good yakitori so famous in Japan. For those who can’t handle all that, there are mushrooms and other veggies.
“At every event I cater, someone tells me they never realized mushrooms taste so good,” says Fields. “I tell them that I’m not doing anything special to them except not doing much.”