until 1871, it was illegal to eat beef in japan.
yeah, you read that right. in fact, it was generally frowned upon to eat any kind of meat taken from livestock until the midst of the meiji restoration. chicken, pork, beef, you name it. while the reason for such an edict is obviously up for debate, many historians think that it was originally put in place to prevent famine. raising large livestock, particularly cows, requires an excessive amount of land and feed which can be put to better use on humans. put simply, beef wasn’t efficient.
like most things in academia, this theory is highly contested. some scholars think the ban on livestock consumption was a direct result of the popularity of buddhism among the ruling classes of japan, particularly the aristocracy and the samurai. it is equally possible that the edict against meat was a natural consequence of japan’s social stratification, namely the creation of the barakumin caste (a loose equivalent of the untouchables of india). the barakumin were comprised almost entirely of people whose professions involved blood and death (namely butchers, undertakers, and executioners). because butchers were highly stigmatized people, it would follow that their wares were as well.
in any case, when the japanese powers that be set their sights on becoming “western,” they engineered a societal overhaul. they sent scholars all over the world, and imported a few foreign scholars of their own to teach them the ways of the west. the upper echelons of japanese society took interest in everything from miliary organization and technology to education to mechanization and industry. plus, there was the matter of eating like westerners. and as luck would have it, when it came to the classy culinary traditions of the west, red meat reigned supreme.
and thus, the floodgates were opened. the transition from livestock taboos to borderline fetishization of foreign beef was so swift that by 1873, the emperor was publicly consuming steak in an effort to change public opinion towards meat. the word yakiniku 焼肉, which literally means “grilled meat,” first appeared in reference to western-style steaks like those the emperor consumed.
however, its usage changed with the times. eventually, it became a term adopted by korean restauranteurs residing in japan following world war ii. inspired by traditional korean foods like bulgogi and galbi, patrons of such korean establishments would order raw, seasoned meat and cook it one piece at a time on charcoal-fueled wire rack grills. even today, yakiniku is used to refer to restaurants of a similar nature, whether korean-owned or not.
the explosion of this charcoal grilled meat culture led to a series of new restaurant varieties, all under the umbrella of yakiniku. kushiyaki 串焼き(grilled stuff on a stick), kushiage 串揚げ (fried stuff on a stick), and yakitori 焼鳥 (grilled chicken) all became integral parts of the japanese culinary landscape within a decade or two. today, the meat varieties available in such establishments are nearly limitless. chicken skin, beef tongue, beef liver, beef shoulder, beef loin, pork spare ribs, pork stomach, cheek meat, intestines, and meatballs. and that is just the tip of the iceberg.
i’m a huge fan of kushiyaki and yakitori. i love chicken skin, tsukune つくね (chicken meatballs), nikudango 肉団子(non-chicken meatballs), and pork stomach. and i do my best to make all four over an open flame out at the bamboo forest from time to time. but sadly, at home (in my tiny one room apartment), there isn’t even close to enough ventilation for me to venture a good old fashioned yakiniku barbeque without asphyxiating myself/burning down my apartment complex. and so, i’ve learned to use what i have to produce a similar result.
homemade, japanese-seasoned pork nikudango (skewered with bamboo, roasted, and doused in sweet soy glaze) don’t exactly follow in the time-honored tradition of western steak or korean bulgogi. but when it comes to grilled meat, sometimes you just have to stick it to the man.
get it? stick it to the man. because the meatballs are on bamboo skewers. like… the skewers are sticks…
nevermind. here’s the recipe.
pork nikudango w/ sweet soy glaze
- 400 grams of ground pork
- 1/2 a large onion
- 4 cloves of garlic
- 4 stalks of garlic chives
- 1 teaspoon of sesame oil
- 1 teaspoon of fresh ginger
- shichimi (japanese seven-spice)
- soy sauce
- japanese rice wine (a.k.a. sake)
- potato starch (a.k.a. katakuriko)
- 1 egg
- bamboo skewers
- in the name of all that is holy, do not skip this step. put some cold water in a plate, and soak your skewers for at least half an hour. if you skip this step and are cooking over an open flame (or in a toaster oven for that matter), you will end up with ash instead of delicious grilled meats on a stick.
- mince the garlic, onion, garlic chives, and ginger as finely as humanly possible. your goal should be to reduce all four pretty close to a paste. large chunks of veggies, particuarly onion, will cause the meatballs to fall apart while you cook them. and we don’t want that, now do we.
- add the minced veggies to a bowl and mix in the pork. add the egg, sesame oil, and a few tablespoons of panko. mix it all up with your hands. more than likely, the panko won’t be enough to firm up the mixture. keep adding about a tablespoon at a time until you can form a firm meatball which will hold whatever shape you form it into.
- heat up a frying pan. i know what you are thinking. frying pan yakiniku? blasphemy. well, calm down. add a tablepoon of oil to the frying pan and brown the meatballs on all sides, turning them gently as you go. remember, you don’t need to cook the meatballs all the way through, you just need to sear the outside to keep all the flavors in while you roast them.
- once the outside is sufficiently browned, skewer to your heart’s content. i generally limit myself to about four or five meatballs per skewer.
- fire up the toaster (or conventional oven) to about 195ºc. once preheated, pop the skewers on a thin baking pan or wire rack and let them roast. you’ll want to turn them at least once ever five minutes or so. the cook time will be different depending on the size of your meatballs, but they should be done once sufficiently browned on the outside.
- while your meatballs are cooking, whip up your tare, or sauce. add one tablespoon of soy sauce, mirin, sake, water, and sugar to a frying pan. bring the mixture to a boil while stirring to make sure the sugar doesn’t burn. once it boils, turn down the heat to a very low simmer. mix together a two tablespoons of water and one or two teaspoons of potato starch until it is completely dissolved, then pour it into the pan. stir over very low heat until the sauce becomes super thick.
- once ready, pour the sauce onto a plate.
- by now, your meatballs should be ready. take the skewers out of the oven and roll them one by one in the sweet tare.
- get yourself a bowl of rice, a sidedish of kimchi, a pair of bamboo chopsticks, and a new belt.