How to Yakiniku Like a Pro: Ordering, Grilling, Eating

How to Yakiniku Like a Pro: Ordering, Grilling, Eating

Japanese foodie Frank Striegl spills the beans on yakiniku secrets - how to grill, what to order and the best dipping sauces to use in this step-by-step photo guide to Japanese BBQ

Yakiniku, literally meaning “grilled meat”, is one of Japan's most popular foods. Inspired by Korean BBQ, it’s a fun and delicious communal experience. At some Japan yakiniku restaurants, the staff will do the grilling for you. However, at most of them, YOU are in charge of grilling. You would think that yakiniku-ing is simple and straightforward. But let me tell you - there’s an art to it. There are various techniques that can enhance your overall yakiniku experience, whether it’s knowing the ideal grill time for specific meats, or knowing which meats go best with which dipping sauce.

So, let's begin!

When ordering

Yakiniku is arguably most enjoyable with a larger group. This way, you get to sample a wider variety of meats (or other items). Yakiniku restaurants often serve platters with exactly that. They’re easy to spot on the menu.

 

The platter in the photo is for 3-4 people and includes 500 grams of meat. If you’re looking for the higher quality cuts of meat, the menu will indicate this with the Chinese character “上”.

While waiting 

Yakiniku grills (shichirin) are normally powered by wood charcoal, with the center being the hottest and the corners being less hot. Keep this in mind as we look at each of the individual meats. Also, before you start cooking, check how close the coals are to the top of the grill. This will impact how quickly your meat cooks!

 

You’ll be provided with metal tongs to grill everything. Make sure you use them for grilling and for serving. It’s not as sanitary and even considered rude if you use your chopsticks to grab the meat directly from the grill. Before we dive in, one more thing - you can request to change the grill once it’s gotten too oily and has burnt bits stuck to it. Usually once is enough during dinner. Simply tell the staff “ami koukan onegaishimasu”. Branching off this, having more flames isn't a good thing. They may indicate it’s time to change the grill.

Start with: Beef tongue 

 

Many of the basic platters (“moriawase” in Japanese) include beef tongue. If your order does include beef tongue (タン), I recommended starting your grilling with it. This is regardless of whether they’re thin (utsugiri) slices or thicker (atsugiri) slices. If thicker, you’ll want to place them near but not in the center (where it’s about 200-300 ℃) and on a medium heat setting. But if they’re thin, you’ll want to place them towards the middle of the grill, where it's hottest (about 400-500 ℃). The heat should be towards a higher setting as well. 

 

In the case of the thin strips, make sure you don’t wait too long to turn them over. When they start to change their shape (curve inwards), it’s time to turn them!

 

Beef tongue is slightly rubbery in texture, but don't let that put you off, because it's so full of flavor. Beef tongue is already seasoned with shio (salt). Unlike other meats, the dipping sauce (tare) you'll want to use is like lemon juice. Carefully coat the strips in it and enjoy the acidic jolt.

Next: Harami - a fine cut 

 

Harami (ハラミ) is essentially skirt steak, or a cut from near the diagram of the cow. It’s quite tender, and just fatty enough. You'll want to put harami meat around the same place as the beef tongue - that is, in the center or right around the center. The heat level should be medium to high as well. Normally harami is thicker, so you don’t need to watch them as diligently as the beef tongue.

 

A dark brown color is what you’re looking for at the end. They may already be seasoned with shio too. But if not, you can use the standard yakiniku dare. This is the most commonly used dipping sauce. It’s composed of soy sauce, mirin, sake, and other ingredients. 

Make sure not to dunk your meat to the point where you can’t taste the meat itself! You don’t want everything too salty.

Savour: Karubi - the most prized meat

 

Karubi (カルビ) is king at yakiniku, being perhaps the most popular cut of beef. These beef short rib slices are beautifully marbled and fatty. They should be placed in the center or around the center, much like the harami. Note that with beef, it's OK if your meat comes out slightly rare - in fact, some would recommend having a little pink color for the karubi. Think of medium rare steak. 

 

Just like with the harami, you’re welcome to dip that deliciously fatty karubi slice into the go-to yakiniku dipping sauce. But remember - there’s nothing wrong with skipping the dipping sauce. Most meats are either seasoned with shio or tare to begin with (tare for the karubi here). You can appreciate the meat’s pure flavor a bit more without any dipping sauce.

Try: Horumon - 'the weird ones'

Horumon (ホルモン) might not be for everyone. But in Japan, they can be an important part of the yakiniku meal. Horumon is organ meat, whether beef intestines or heart. 

 

The general rule is that horumon takes longer to grill. You almost want to get them to the point that they’re burnt and a lot of the water content has been removed. After doing this, they’ll maintain a wonderfully springy texture, perhaps the most unique texture of any yakiniku menu items.

Horumon can be best enjoyed with a miso-based dipping sauce. This punchier and thicker dipping sauce goes perfectly well with the chunkier and chewier composition of horumon. However, some horumon may be already seasoned with salt (labelled “塩”). In this case, they can be just fine as they are! In summary, make sure that they are properly cooked. In the middle of the grill is a perfect place to place them.

Other meats: Chicken, pork

In addition, beyond the popular cuts of beef, there are sometimes other meats to enjoy. You may see chicken and or pork on the menu (even if veering away from traditional yakiniku).

 

Pi-toro, for example, is pork shoulder. It’s a leaner cut that requires a good amount of cooking time - simply because it’s pork. Don’t forget this when ordering any pork items. I wouldn’t recommend going in the rarer direction when grilling your chicken... but you can be a little more liberal than with pork.

Don't miss: Veggies

 

While not the stars of the show, vegetables can provide welcome balance to your yakiniku meal. They can be onions, carrots, bell peppers, negi (spring onions), or even pumpkin. You don’t need to be so picky about where to place them on the grill. Just make sure they don’t burn.

On the whole, yakiniku is a wonderful food experience in Japan. When travel has resumed, you’ll have some pro tips to apply when you visit a yakiniku restaurant in Japan!

**All photos by Frank Striegl

Frank is a Filipino American born in Tokyo and raised on ramen. He appropriately consumes over 300 bowls of ramen a year, and runs ramen tours which you can see at his blog, 5 Am Ramen. When he's not eating Asian food, he enjoys reading, exercising, and travel. He also is a huge Lord of the Rings fan. Connect with him online @5amramen

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