These Japanese Chicken Yakitori Skewers are traditional street food, grilled and basted with a sweet and savoury sauce and topped with a zesty sesame-lemon sprinkle. They're tender, bite-sized chicken kabobs with rich umami flavours, ideal as an appetizer or a main dish.
Add some Asian-inspired flair to your next party with these Japanese Chicken Yakitori Skewers! These bite-sized pieces of tender chicken thighs have all the flavours you'd expect in traditional Japanese food: sweet, salty, savoury and umami. But wait! There's more.
They're garnished with a zesty sprinkle of sesame and lemon which puts them over the top.
I've made these Ginger-Garlic Glazed Korean Chicken Skewers many times lately, but today I decided to try something with a Japanese influence instead!
What is chicken yakitori?
Yakitori is Japanese-style chicken, threaded on to skewers, grilled over a charcoal flame and glazed with a richly flavoured sauce.
While traveling in Tokyo, we discovered that yakitori skewers are popular with commuters as an after-work snack, (similar to satay stalls on the street corners of Singapore.) Street vendors offer different types of yakitori outside metro stations and on street corners.
These popular street food skewers are basted in tare, a sweet soy sauce and mirin mix which gives them a rich deep colour. While yakitori has traditionally been viewed as a cheap meal, high-end yakitori restaurants are also popular in Japan.
There's no need to travel to Tokyo to enjoy this popular Japanese food! You can make this easy chicken yakitori recipe at home. Serve it as either an appetizer or as a main meal with sides.
Two things make these yakitori skewers incredibly delicious: juicy chicken thighs and a flavourful basting sauce!
- coconut sugar or brown sugar
- mirin: sweet Japanese rice wine adds sweetness
- tamari: gluten-free soy sauce. If you're following a paleo diet you can use coconut aminos instead.
- rice vinegar: adds the necessary acid to balance the flavours
- chicken thighs: boneless, skinless so they cook quickly. Thighs will result in juicier meat than breasts.
- vegetable oil for the grill
- for the not-to-be-missed garnish: sesame seeds, chives, red pepper flakes and lemon zest
This yakitori sauce has those almost indescribable umami flavours. As you baste the chicken on the grill, the sauce caramelizes, leaving a deep rich colour and flavour on the chicken thighs.
Here's an overview of what you'll do. You'll find complete instructions in the recipe card below.
- If using bamboo skewers, soak them in water for an hour or two.
- First, combine the ingredients for the sesame-lemon sprinkle in a small bowl and set aside.
- Next, in a small saucepan, combine the basting ingredients. Slice the chicken thighs in half lengthwise, transfer to a resealable bag or marinating container and add ¼ cup of the marinade. Refrigerate the chicken.
- Simmer the remaining marinade over medium-high heat until it is syrupy and reduced by half. Remove from heat.
- Heat the grill. If using charcoal, bank the coals on one side of the grill. If using gas, leave one side of the grill on low heat. Oil the grates.
- Thread the chicken on to skewers, accordion-style. Sprinkle with salt and grill over direct heat, rotating until browned, about 3-4 minutes. Then move to the cooler side of the grill and continue to cook, basting every minute or so until skewers are cooked through and nicely glazed. Remove from the grill before topping with sesame-lemon sprinkle and/or fresh chives.
You can make this ahead of time and store it as a freezer meal. Freeze the chicken pieces right in the marinating container with the marinade. Reduce the remaining marinade and freeze it separately.
Thaw in the refrigerator overnight, then thread the chicken on the skewers and grill as outlined in the recipe card.
How to store
Refrigerate leftovers promptly in an airtight container. Reheat in the oven in foil at 350°F. for 10 - 15 minutes or until heated through.
Easy Japanese Chicken Yakitori Skewers
- ⅓ cup coconut sugar or brown sugar
- ⅓ cup mirin sweet Japanese rice wine
- ⅓ cup tamari or coconut aminos for paleo diet
- ¼ cup rice vinegar
- 8 chicken thighs boneless, skinless
- vegetable oil for the grill
Sesame Lemon Sprinkle
- 2 tablespoon sesame seeds
- 1 tablespoon chives snipped
- 1 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
- 1 teaspoon lemon zest finely grated
- Combine coconut sugar, mirin, tamari (or soy sauce or coconut aminos) and vinegar in a small saucepan.
- Before heating, transfer ¼ cup of the mixture to a resealable plastic bag or marinating container.
- Slice chicken thighs lengthwise, add to the bag and massage to coat. Chill in the refrigerator for 2 hours or more.
- Simmer the remaining marinade over low heat until reduced by half. It will have the consistency of syrup. Remove from heat.
- Heat one side of a gas grill to medium-high and the other to low. (If using coals, bank them on one side). Oil the grates. Thread chicken on to 4 skewers, accordion style.
- Grill over direct heat until nicely browned, 3-5 minutes. Remove to cooler side of grill and continue to cook, basting and turning every minute or so until cooked through, about 7 - 10 minutes depending on the temperature of the grill. Use an instant-read thermometer to make sure the internal temperature of the chicken is at least 165°F.
- Remove to a serving platter, top with sesame-lemon sprinkle and serve.
This recipe was inspired by Soy-Basted Chicken with Sesame-Citrus Sprinkle from Bon Appetit.
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