Sweet And Savory: Finding Balance On The Japanese Grill

Jul 18, 2013
Originally published on July 18, 2013 6:31 pm

If you're looking for grilled Japanese food, chef and cookbook author Harris Salat recommends you head over to Fukuoka, a city where yatai, or mobile food carts, line up by the riverside.

The carts became popular after World War II, Salat says, when Japanese were looking to rebuild their lives and find new sources of income.

"You can kind of pull up a stool, and there's a cook, you know, grilling yakitori very carefully over charcoal," he tells Melissa Block, host of All Things Considered. "It's a lot of fun."

Yakitori sauce is savory and sweet, representing a key characteristic of Japanese grilling: a balance of flavors. Salat explores this and other qualities in The Japanese Grill, co-written with Tadashi Ono.

Grilling, says Salat, is one of the "fundamental" techniques in Japanese cuisine.

"And when I started going to Japan and started writing about the food there and exploring the food there, I was so amazed by how Japanese grill and how it's different than the way we typically grill" in America, he says.

First, there's a difference in complexity, Salat says.

"In Japanese cooking, we really focus on the natural flavor of ingredients. So you don't see the kind of marinating and big flames coming up on grills," he says. Seasoning is simple — just salt or dipping the food in yakitori while grilling.

The pieces are smaller, to work for a "chopstick culture," Salat says. And there's variety in the meat used, too: "You're looking at the wing, the skin, the heart, the liver. ... You're cooking the thigh or the knee cartilage."

One thing that distinguishes Japanese grilling is what Salat describe as the "one-two punch of both caramelized meat and caramelized sauce."

"First, you caramelize or char the meat. Then you dip the meat into the sauce, after it's grilled partway. And then you char the sauce," Salat says, adding."So when it comes to you, it's really just amazingly delicious."

This post is part of Global Grill, a summer series from All Things Considered that pulls apart the smoky flavors of grilled foods from around the world.


'Japanese Grill' Recipe: Corn Brushed With Soy Sauce And Mirin

Salat tells All Things Considered: "We love corn ... and we do it in a very simple way, where you just throw the corn on with the husk and grill it for a while, until the corn starts to cook inside the husk, and then peel it. And then at the end, you're just brushing it with soy sauce and mirin. And mirin is another fermented Japanese seasoning that was actually originally an alcoholic drink. It's fermented from sticky rice, and it adds a certain kind of sweetness."

Serves 4

3 tablespoons soy sauce

1 tablespoon mirin

4 ears corn, in their husks

Mix together the soy sauce and mirin in a bowl to make the marinade; set aside.

Preheat a grill to medium. Place the corn directly on the grate. Grill for about 20 minutes, turning about every 5 minutes. Transfer the corn to a cutting board. When the husks are cool enough to touch, shuck them. Return the corn to the grill and brush with the marinade. Grill for about 2 more minutes, turning the corn every 30 seconds, and brushing with more marinade. The corn will begin to caramelize and brown; be careful not to burn. Serve immediately.

Reprinted with permission from The Japanese Grill by Tadashi Ono & Harris Salat, copyright 2011. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House Inc. Photo credit: Todd Coleman © 2011

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Over the past few weeks here at ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, we've been turning our attention to one of the delicious perks of summer: the smoky rich taste of grilled food. And in particular, we're hearing about grilling traditions around the world - from Greece to India - for our series The Global Grill. Today, it's grilling Japanese style.

At a recent barbecue at the Japanese ambassador's home here in Washington, a chef grilled skewers of mackerels, scallops and bite-size pieces of chicken that glisten as they caramelized over the fire. It's known as yakitori and has become a passion of American cookbook author Harris Salat. He is the co-author with Tadashi Ono of the book "The Japanese Grill." Harris Salat, welcome.

HARRIS SALAT: Thank you very much.

BLOCK: Where does your love of Japanese grilling come from?

SALAT: Well, I'm a son of immigrants, and I think grilling in America is - was a way for us to become American. And when I started going to Japan and started writing about the food there and exploring the food there, I was so amazed by how Japanese grill and how it's different in the way we typically grill. You know, it's a fundamental - one of the fundamental cooking techniques in Japanese cuisine.

BLOCK: What's the big difference?

SALAT: Well, in Japanese cooking, we really focus on the natural flavor of ingredients. So we don't see the kind of marinating and the big flames coming up on grills. It's a chopstick culture. Pieces are bite size. You really focus on the natural taste of chicken, for example.

BLOCK: You know, looking through the chicken section of your book and in Japan, at least, when they're grilling chicken, they're not just grilling the chicken meat that we would know, right? They're grilling the heart and the liver and the skin and just about any part that they can find.

SALAT: Yeah. That's true. There are a couple of differences. One of the first things that's so amazing is that I counted at least 30 distinct types of chicken grilled dishes out of one chicken. So, you know, you're looking at the wing, the skin, the neck, the heart, the liver. You're making chicken meatballs. You're cooking the thigh or the knee cartilage. So there's a lot of that. And once you start grilling that chicken, then you think about, OK, am I going to grill it with just simply salt or use this yakitori where you're making a savory, sweet sauce?

And the thing that's really different that's so interesting is, first, you caramelize or char the meat, then you dip the meat into the sauce after it's grilled partway, and then you char the sauce. So you have this one-two punch of both caramelized meat and caramelized sauce. So when it comes to you, it's really just amazingly delicious.

BLOCK: I really love the idea that you have in your book for doing grilled corn. Describe what your technique is there.

SALAT: Well, we love corn, especially when it's in season. It's so wonderful. And we do it in very simple way where you just throw the corn on with the husk and grill it for a while till the corn starts to cook inside the husk and then peel it. And then at the end, you're just brushing it with soy sauce and mirin. And mirin is another fermented Japanese seasoning that was actually originally an alcoholic drink.

It's fermented from sticky rice. And it adds a certain kind of sweetness, and it's a very, you know, soy sauce, so savory and sweet, it's a classic balance of flavors, which is what - Japanese cooking is a lot about balancing flavors. And it just adds wonderful flavor to something that already tastes really delicious. And it's just a subtle, beautiful accent that kind of makes corn perfect.

BLOCK: Harris, what's the street food scene when it comes to grilling in Japan?

SALAT: Well, Japan's a tremendously urbanized country. You know, backyards are few and far between. And I think that most people who want to eat grilled food would go out. What I love, and what you could still find in certain parts of Japan are something that started really a lot after World War II as Japan was rebuilding and people were rebuilding their lives and trying to find a way to eke out a living. And one of the things that a lot of people did was start yatai, which are these mobile food carts.

And there's a city in Japan called Fukuoka, which has a couple of rivers, and they have all these yatai kind of set up along the river. It's really wonderful, and you just kind of pull up a stool and there's a cook, you know, grilling yakitori very carefully over charcoal. And it's just wonderful to sit down and have a snack or have a full meal with a little beer or sake. It's a lot of fun.

BLOCK: Well, Harris Salat, thanks for talking to us. Have a great summer. Happy grilling.

SALAT: Thank you so much. Happy grilling to you too.

BLOCK: Harris Salat is the co-author with Tadashi Ono of "The Japanese Grill: From Classic Yakitori to Steak, Seafood, and Vegetables." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.