History of chicken & Yakitori

The First Chicken Kebab Stall in Japan
-Meiji Era to Showa Era- (1868 – 1989)

Chicken was a luxury back in the old days

The Meiji Restoration (1868) brought about a huge reform of the diets of the Japanese. One of them was the beginning of the consumption of meat. Sukiyaki was also introduced, and it found instant popularity around the whole nation. Amazingly during that time, chicken was more of a luxury than beef.

The First Chicken Kebab Shop

Thanks to the popular demand of chicken, kebab stalls came to life. They weren’t as popular at first however, as it was very expensive to buy chicken. Instead, the shops used chicken carcass or gristle, which were dumped as garbage from high-class chicken restaurants to bring the cost down. Kebab stalls were usually set up by the entrance ways and paths to temples or shrines, at the ends of bridges, or at traditional fairs. Skewered food was already popular in the Edo Period, having been used in tempura or oden (fishcakes and vegetables cooked in soup). That was one of the main reasons they skewered chicken kebabs. However, chicken was not the only meat the kebab stalls were selling, - there were all sorts of meat, from beef guts to horse meat to even dog meat. But despite that, the name Yakitori (grilled chicken) was kept to represent the various kinds of other meat on the menu.

Yakiton in Eastern Japan, Kushikatsu in Western Japan

In the Taisho Era (1912-1926), Yakiton (grilled pork) stalls started up in the Kanto area (Eastern part of Japan). After the Great Kanto Earthquake, Yakiton with whisky became popular among business people. On the other hand, Kushikatsu (deep fried pork on skewers) became popular in the Kansai area (the Western part of Japan). The popularity of these two foods was to prelude the birth of Yakitori.

The Birth of Yakitori

Producing more chicken at a lower cost was essential to making Yakitori popular among Japanese people.Some also say that Japanese chicken breeds, which were commonly eaten until about 1952, were almost becoming extinct, and the Shamo (game fowl) breed became extremely expensive. Chicken farms started breeding Nagoya-Cochin or Leghorn breeds because of their resistance to diseases and their breeding at a lower cost. This profit-driven way of chicken farming brought about the extinction of Japanese breeds. It also led to broiler production after WWⅡ.

Before & After WWⅡ

During WWⅡ, people suffered from the reduction and regulation of food. As an obvious consequence, Yakitori stalls also took a big hit. After the war, Yakitori stalls were back in black markets, and even permanent Yakitori restaurants were established. However, the meat was predominantly pork and beef, cooked with sweet sauce made from a soy-sauce substitute and saccharin. This might have created the taste of Yakitori sauce of today.

Kushikatsu(deep fried pork on skewers) from the Taisho Era also re-appeared in the Kansai area. Kushikatsu became one of the most popular foods in Kansai as well as Okonomiyaki (Japanese pancakes) and Takoyaki (octopus balls) after the regulation of flour was abolished in 1951.Even though chicken was still a high class food, new kind of varities introducing the finer parts of the chicken on skewers and also vegetable skewers appeared. The chicken tender (part of the chicken breast) was especially popular as a luxury food.

Broilers brought over by the US Army

With the American occupation of Japan came broilers. They were common after about 1965, when Yakitori stalls rose up to the point where their menus were as good as the ones you see today. Cheap Yakitori went down well with alcohol, so that you could always find Yakitori on an Izakaya (restaurant or pub) menu. This may make Yakitori sound like an inferior food, but it was thanks to broilers the Yakitori culture was popularised in Japan.

Heading Towards a New Yakitori Culture

There has been a boom in Japanese chicken breeds in recent times. With economic growth and the increase in household incomes, food has expanded greatly. The taste of chicken that you can’t find in broiler chickens has also come about naturally. In the markets there has been a distinct movement from cheap, imported chicken to comparatively more expensive domestic chicken, to the extent that you could call the current market a boom for Japanese chicken breeds. Specialty Yakitori shops boast signs selling these domestic breeds, and Izakaya have introduced these new tastes on their menus. With new ingredients and new parts of chicken meat being explored and the introduction of Yakitori shops producing high quality cuisine, one could say that a new Yakitori culture is emerging.