Tsukune Are The Savory Grilled Chicken Meatballs You Need To Know

There's an alluring magic to a late-night meal at a yakitori-ya — a type of Japanese restaurant dedicated to chicken skewers. The atmosphere's casual, the coals are smoking, and the whiskey highballs are flowing. Orders are placed à la carte, with each chicken cut artfully threaded, prepped, and grilled to perfection. If you're unsure which skewer type to start the night with, go for the tsukune.

Made with ground chicken, eggs, spices, and various vegetables, it's a yakitori type that boasts the perfect assembly of elements. The crust's ideally charred, the interior's juicy, and there's just the right amount of spice. Used as a vessel for various chicken scraps, it's a great first impression of a restaurant's quality. The dish is tricky to keep moist and open to interpretations, qualities showcasing the chef's finesse. Especially when dipped into the accompanying sweet tare sauce, it might just be the bite of the night. Let's dive into what tsukune is all about.

What is tsukune?

Tsukune is a type of yakitori — a type of grilled chicken skewers popular in Japan. Commonly eaten as street food or at casual restaurants called yakitori-yas, it's an accessible snack often paired with a drink. The skewers are cooked on a small charcoal grill, typically fueled by binchotan charcoals.

Out of all the skewer types, tsukune is one of the most variable. Since it's a ground chicken meatball, it can incorporate many different ingredients. There are regional renditions across Japan, which improvise in texture, as well as taste. Some chefs add cartilage for a chewier texture, while others add breadcrumbs for a softer version. Tsukune is served with tare, a sweet and sticky soy sauce-based dipping sauce. The condiment is frequently used as a baste during the cooking process, with the skewers dipped into the container several times during preparation. As a result, the oils and charred bits from the grill infuse into the tare, thereby seasoning its taste.

Grilled tsukune meatballs are packed with flavor

Ttsukune utilizes a fattier cut of chicken to create a moist and flavorful skewer. Chicken thighs or dark meat are the typical go-tos, with some incorporating even more pure chicken fat into the mix. Once the meat is ground, it's mixed in with flavorings, which vary based on the rendition. Frequent additions include onions (especially scallions), garlic, and ginger. Other options are yuzu zest, mirin, shiso leaves, eggs, and panko breadcrumbs. While there's not a defined consistency, tsukune is often combined to a paste-like texture — moist to the touch, but still retaining its shape. The meat is then formed into balls and threaded onto bamboo skewers.

Preparing tsukune is difficult, as the meatballs tend to fall off the skewers and break apart. There are various techniques to hinder this process, including freezing or cooling the meatballs before throwing them on the grill. Some also steam the meatballs before cooking to firm up the texture. Once the coals are ready, the skewers are gingerly transferred to the grill. While cooking, the tsukune is frequently basted with the tare sauce. It usually takes three or four minutes per side for the meat to achieve a delectable crust with a moist yet ready-to-eat interior. Tsukune are sometimes garnished with spicy shichimi togarashi and served with a lemon wedge. There's a small container of the tare, ready for dipping, too.