It was 8 a.m. and I was famished as we finally sat down at a Yakitori-Ya down an alley and under the tracks in Tokyo. You may be wondering why I was there at that hour, as businessmen rushed by on their way to the subway and uniformed school children shuffled through in single file. I’d been up since 4:00 a.m, and had just been to the renowned Tsukiji Fish Market tuna auction, something I’m glad I got to witness, as they have since closed and moved to a new location. Sushi is one of my favorite foods, and seeing the rows of big fish in person, tails cut to expose their flesh for sampling by the bidders, was quite a sight. Part of our tour included sitting down to a plate perfectly cut sashimi before the auction. It was 4:30 a.m., and my body didn’t know if I was just coming off a night of debauchery in Shinjuku, or was ready for eggs and toast. I looked over at my guide with a puzzled look. “Do Japanese really eat raw fish for breakfast?” She laughed and replied, “no, we eat cheerios!” I was happy to be pushing the norm, as my teeth sunk into the freshest tuna I had ever experienced. After the auction, I felt like a true insider as we wandered around the outer market amid chefs with bamboo baskets filled with fresh octopus, snapper, eel, squid and other sushi bar staples. All the sights and smells stimulated my appetite again, and we jumped on the subway to a nearby business district for our next food stop.
Our Yakitori-Ya, like many of the best I would come to learn, was situated down an alley under the train tracks in the Marunouchi district of Tokyo. Yaki means “grilled” and Tori means “bird” which in most cases, is chicken, but in modern times can extend to mushrooms, or even bacon wrapped asparagus. Slender hibachi grills lined with skewers of every cut of chicken imaginable lay over perfectly stoked Binchotan charcoal. A quick marinade of sake and soy sauce is all that’s used. When the sake/soy combo hits the Binchotan, a waft of fresh smoke envelopes and further seasons the chicken. The chef lay my first two skewers onto the beautiful rectangular plate in front of me, and motioned for me to sprinkle some spice over the top. It was then that I noticed a little dish of colorful ground chiles near the tip of my chopsticks. In moments I was to experience for the first time Japan’s famous seasoning: Shichimi Togarashi. A red chile pepper blend translating to “seven spice,” and centering around the fruity yet spicy Togarashi chile. Each producer uses slightly different ingredients to balance the Capsicum annuum, the Japanese red chile pepper that forms the central backbone to the mix. Most add Sansho — a mild japanese green peppercorn, dried citrus peel and a variety of other seasonings such as dried garlic, sesame seeds, seaweed, and in some cases, hemp seed. My love for chiles already established, I was immediately taken by the toasted layers of flavor of this quintessentially Japanese blend.
The Japanese take such great care in everything they do, from curating and perfectly slicing fish, to listening to the crackle on the Yakitori grill to know when to rotate each skewer. Each experience in Japan provided a window into a culture that takes great pain to do things right. This is true even for the Binchotan charcoal, made from Ubame oak branches in the Kishi Prefecture, and carefully tended in fig shaped kilns for several days by masters using a technique in place for thousands of years. “Kissed by Binchotan” an unlikely name for a chile blend, but rightfully so, as my yakitori that day that was literally kissed by the magic charcoal smoke, and my world was opened further by the wonderful shichimi I sprinkled over the top.