How to Eat Japanese Food 1: Yakiniku

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I’m sure there are vegetarians somewhere in Japan but I can’t say that I’ve met one.  Japan’s culture, like most cultures, is largely centered around food and the way it’s prepared.  In the first of what I hope to be a plentiful series of posts on Japanese food, we are going to look at a traditional Japanese favorite – Korean barbeque.

Yes, Korean barbeque.

I know what you’re thinking.  Yes, the Japanese and the Koreans do not have the best of histories and yes it is probably disingenuous to start a series of posts on Japanese food with a nationalized version of a Korean cuisine, but the last restaurant I went to was a yakiniku izakaya and I remembered to take pictures.

Yakiniku is basically fondue without the oil or the melty cheese.  Actually, it’s nothing like fondue but the principle is the same.  A large fireproof pot with hot coals inside is placed in the middle of a dining or tatami table and people sit around it and grill meat.  The whole thing is basically an excuse to socialize and drink beer but because the Japanese refuse to do anything half-assed, the food is always the showcase.

Before we go any further I may need to clarify the definitions of yakiniku and izakaya.  Izakayas are basically Japanese style pubs where food is served.  Yakiniku izakayas are izakayas where the food is DIY grilled meats.  There are sushi izakayas, regional specialty izakayas, sake izakayas, and even American izakayas.  So in conclusion, all yakiniku restaurants are izakayas but not all izakayas are yakiniku restaurants.  In truth, that might not be true at all but as far as I know from personal experience, all yakiniku establishments fall under the izakaya category.  I hope that clears up any confusion.

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Most yakiniku izakayas will offer a standard variety of pork, beef, chicken, and seafood but some places specialize in a certain type of meat.  The specialty will be obvious and many places will put a picture of a pig or cow on the signage.

In addition to the traditional loin and rib cuts of meat, most yakiniku izakayas offer a full offal menu.  If you are into things like hearts, lungs, cartilage, livers, tongues, kidneys, throats, glands, blood, and intestines, the world is your foul smelling oyster at a yakiniku.  Before you go crazy and order pig spleen soaked in bile, just know that you are going to be the recipient of an entire plate of spleen, not just a single piece – plan accordingly or risk being rude.  I usually stick with standards like pork belly and beef loin but I have tried the salted beef tongue and it was pretty good.  Deliciously expensive wagyu beef is available in many establishments but you should consult your cardiologist before consumption.

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Like I mentioned earlier, the real purpose of yakiniku is to sit around and drink beer or iced sake so you should always be prepared to consume a few pints of cold lager and arrange non-felonious transportation for after the meal (the BAC limit in Japan is .03%).  If you don’t drink you can still enjoy yakiniku but I’m not certain how you found your way to this site.

Once the food arrives make sure you grease the grill by spreading some of the provided lard or caul fat on the heated grate.  Failure to fat the grill could result in embarrassing burnt chunks of expensive meat.  Monitor your meat closely so that it doesn’t burn but don’t be too worried about undercooking the meat, the people at the next table are eating raw horse and they seem just fine.

I don’t know if yakiniku is illegal in the United States but a restaurateur would be insane to open such a place as he would undoubtedly be sued for personal injury liability.  I don’t have any hair on my knuckles thanks to yakiniku and I consider myself to be fairly competent around open flames.  I know for certain that if we had a nearby yakiniku place while I was in college the whole restaurant would have burned to the ground within the first month of operation.

If you find yourself in Japan, or Korea, or any other land of personal responsibility that allows diners to cook meat over an open flame in an enclosed space, skip the raw fish and give yakiniku a try.

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