Japanese Grilled Chicken Meatballs
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I am a very big fan of Japanese grilling. The flavours are incredible, the diversity is endless and inventive, and the portions are perfect for sharing. It’s a fantastic food culture really. So when it comes to developing recipes, I tend not to reinvent the wheel too much. I’ll tweak my ingredient ratios a little, maybe try adding or subtracting something, but I tend to sort of riff off the classics. But sometimes, for one reason or another, you’ve got to make big changes, and when you do, you want them to be spectacular. In this recipe I had to do some serious inventing because I had to avoid a set of common allergens, namely wheat, dairy, and eggs.
Japanese cuisine is actually a relatively allergy-friendly one (with the notable exceptions of fish and soy, which are nearly ubiquitous). Dairy is fairly uncommon, wheat is fairly easy to avoid (with some caveats that I’ll mention below in the Recipe Notes section), and peanuts and tree nuts don’t show up all that often. Eggs are fairly common in Japanese food, but they tend to be used outright (e.g. fried, boiled, etc.) and are only occasionally incorporated into sauces and mixtures, which makes them a little easier to work around. There are exceptions to all of these generalizations of course, but in general it’s been pretty easy for me to make Japanese food while avoiding these ingredients. Now I should say that I have no allergies myself, but I frequently cook for our very good friends Rob and Eri and their young son, who is severely allergic to the food groups I just covered. Lucky for me, Eri is Japanese, so I get to pick her brain about cooking techniques and substitutions (and weird secret ingredients). One evening we gathered at my home for some Japanese barbecue, comprised of bacon-wrapped shimeji mushrooms, chicken and scallion (negima) yakitori, and chicken meatball skewers (tsukune). The outstanding hit of the evening was bacon-wrapped shimeji mushroom kushiyaki (which uses the same tare sauce and is also allergy friendly), but an earlier iteration of these chicken ‘meatballs’ was disappointingly dry. Turns out it’s tricky to make a good, moist meatball without breadcrumbs and/or egg. But I was determined to make this recipe work, so I turned to the food world’s new favorite weirdo miracle ingredient: aquafaba.
If you’re not familiar with aquafaba, it’s the liquid that comes in a can of chickpeas. Aquafaba is essentially Latin for ‘bean water,’ but let’s face it, aquafaba sounds a lot sexier. Chefs started experimenting with it around 2014, and the word itself was only coined in 2015, so this is pretty new stuff. In any case, aquafaba has some pretty cool properties that allow it to be used in very much the same way that you’d use egg whites. Absolutely spectacular eggless meringues and macarons can be made with it, much to the delight of those who can’t or don’t eat eggs; indeed, a lot of the attention afforded to aquafaba has come from the vegan community. But if you do eat meat, it’s still an awesome ingredient to play with. Case in point – it makes an amazing meatball binder.
As for the flavour, aquafaba doesn’t bring a lot to the game (which is good, because nobody wants meringues to taste like chickpeas), so another one of my favorite secret weapons gets to ride to the resuce: miso! As you can probably tell from my ridiculously detailed Miso Pantry Page, I love miso. Aka (red) miso adds flavour and salt to the otherwise fairly plain combination of chicken and tofu, and a little bit goes a surprisingly long way here.
By adding aquafaba and tofu to the chicken, I was able to create a rather sticky chicken paste that could be formed (albeit messily) around a skewer and grilled. In fact, it was so sticky that I was worried it wouldn’t come together well (see below for tips on dealing with that). But once the chicken was on the grill, it firmed up beautifully and cooked perfectly. The end result was moist and delicious, with an amazing texture. For what it’s worth, this recipe also makes an amazing Japanese-style chicken burger patty or a pan-fried meatballs, so you feel free to take it in that direction.
So there you go. You reinvent the wheel if you’re not allowed to use wheels. I suppose that analogy is appropriate, given that these ‘meatballs’ are in no way round. I don’t think chicken meat-paddles has quite the same ring to it.
Making the Skewers
This is one of those meals where you THINK something is going wrong as you make it, but then everything turns out fine in the end. The chicken mixture is quite soft and quite sticky in its raw state, and this presents some challenges in terms of forming the skewers. While this is true of a lot of chicken meatballs, it’s further complicated here by the lack of breadcrumbs. Here are my tips for getting this to work without any trouble (with the biggest, most life-hackish tip shown in bold):
- Oil your hands. The chicken will stick to you less if you rub your bare hands with a little vegetable oil.
- If you can find flat Japanese-style skewers, use them. There’s more surface area for the chicken to stick too, and it will keep the skewer from rotating inside of it when you go to flip them.
- Line up all of your finished skewers on a baking tray (NOT a cutting board – it has to be heat-proof). When you’re ready to cook, quickly turn the tray over onto the grill and give it a few taps to get the skewers to release. This not only gets everything cooking at the same time, it avoids the major hassle of trying to move the skewers without having them fall apart. HOWEVER – if you’re going to do this, make sure you plan out the orientation of your skewers before they go on the grill. You want them to land perpendicular to the bars on your grill, not parallel. Plan accordingly, and make sure to have some tongs and oven/bbq mitts handy so you can work over a hot grill safely.
- Don’t touch or try to flip the skewers until after they’ve cooked for at least 3-4 minutes on one side. You want them to be holding together before they get flipped.
- Use barbecue tongs AND a spatula to flip the skewers the first time to decrease the chances that they’ll fall apart on you.
If you don’t want to try tip number 3 (and don’t say I didn’t warn you), try to transfer the skewers to the grill carefully with a spatula and perhaps some sort of arcane incantation.
This is my go-to simple tare sauce, and I use it often. It’s easy to make and ingredients are easy to come by. I used tamari here because I like the taste and to emphasize the wheat-free nature of the recipe, but you can substitute a good all-purpose (and preferably Japanese) soy sauce instead.
The recipe makes at least three times as much as you need, so feel free to cut it down. I personally prefer to make more and use it on multiple dishes. To make this go as smoothly as possible, either start it immediately before you begin the chicken or make it ahead of time. For more detail on making the tare, including tips and variations, check out the recipe notes on my bacon-wrapped shimeji mushroom kushiyaki page. Actually, just make that one too. Seriously, it’s incredible.
I strongly recommend that you use ground chicken thighs rather than breasts here, as they’re more flavourful and they won’t dry out easily. If you can only find chicken breast meat, add a little oil to the mixture to make up for the lost fat.
As I mentioned above, aquafaba is simply the liquid that comes out of a can of chickpeas (technically any number of legumes could work, but chickpeas are the gold standard so far). You don’t buy it separately – just buy a can of chickpeas and drain all of the liquid out of it. That’s aquafaba. Save the chickpeas themselves for another recipe.
As for the miso, I like using aka (red) miso here, but you could get away with all sorts of different varieties. Awase (mixed red and white) miso would work great, and I would hazard a guess that mugi and genmai miso would both lend an earthy and distinctive flavour too. A good white miso would also be great, but I’d personally recommend sticking with a less-sweet variety. I think hatcho miso might be a little too strong, but perhaps if you used a little less of it. If you try it, let me know! And if you’re new to using miso, don’t be intimidated – it’s easy, delicious, and I have a craaaaazy-detailed guide to it on the site. There are a lot of so-so miso guides out there that rehash the same half-truths and bad translations. This is not one of those.
The rest of the ingredients are pretty straightforward, especially if you have experience with Japanese cooking. If you’re fairly new to it or you’re looking for a detailed primer, be sure to check out the Pantry Pages on Mirin, Tamari, and Rice Vinegar. I particularly recommend reading up on mirin, as there’s a BIG difference between the good stuff and the cheap/corn-syrupy stuff. If you’re unfamiliar with Shichimi Togarashi, I’ve got you covered there too (and you’re about to have your world rocked, because that stuff is awesome).
As a final note, make sure to familiarize yourself with the ingredients you buy if you’re trying to keep things wheat/gluten-free. Contrary to common belief, some tamari does contain wheat, as do some (but not most) miso pastes.
Want to Use Wheat/Eggs? No Problem!
If you’ve stumbled upon this recipe without the need for (or interest in) an allergy-friendly aquafaba version, a few simple tweaks turn it into a more conventional (and still very delicious) chicken tsukune recipe.
If you want to use both egg and panko, eliminate the aquafaba and add EITHER one whole egg (large) or two egg whites, plus about 1/4 cup of panko (or dry, flaky breadcrumbs). If you want to use bread but not eggs, use 1/4 cup of panko/breadcrumbs and reduce the aquafaba by about 1 tbsp.
Wait, Where’d the Corn Come From?
That delicious, incredible, oh-so good corn is another barbecued delight with a distinct Japanese twist (and another amazing wonder-ingredient). Chicken tsukune and Japanese grilled meats are delicious, but they really call for some vegetables and other sides. So check it out, grill it up, and serve it alongside the meat.
If you do make extra tare sauce, you can use it with the bacon-wrapped mushrooms I mentioned before. You can also use it on basically any chicken that you want to grill, and you could adapt it for use (in place of ponzu) with a Japanese-style Hamburger.
The nutritional information shown is for 1 skewer (~1/12th of the total recipe) including a portion of the tare sauce (assuming 1/4 of the recipe is used between all skewers).
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- 450 g ground chicken thighs (see note)
- 150 g medium tofu
- 1/4 cup aquafaba
- 1.5 tbsp aka (red) miso (see note)
- 1/4 tsp ground allspice (preferably fresh ground)
- 10 g ginger
- 1.5 tsp sesame oil
- scallions thinly sliced, to garnish (optional)
- shichimi togarashi to garnish (optional)
- 1 cup tamari (or shoyu/soy sauce)
- 1/2 cup mirin
- 1/2 cup sake
- 2 tbsp rice vinegar
- 1 tbsp sugar
- 15 g ginger (~4 cm/1.5 inch, thinly sliced)
- 30 g scallions (about 5-6 stalks, green portion only)
- 4 garlic cloves (~15 g)
Combine the liquid ingredients in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Add the sugar and stir to dissolve. Add the ginger, scallions and garlic cloves and simmer over medium-high heat until the sauce is reduced by about half (about 15-20 minutes). It should be glossy and relatively thick. Let stand for 5 minutes.
Strain the solids and store the sauce in a sealed container. Unused sauce can be refrigerated for up to a month.
Place the tofu on a large plate, then put a heavy plate or two on top of it to press out the excess liquid. Let stand for about 5 minutes, then pour off the liquid and mash the tofu in preparation for the next step.
In a large bowl, thoroughly combine all of the chicken tsukune ingredients. Try to make sure that your tofu is well mashed before you mix it in, as it's difficult to break big chunks once they're mixed into the chicken.
(Optional) If you have time to spare, you can chill the mixture in the freezer for about 20 minutes. This makes it a little easier to shape and work with.
Pour a little bit of vegetable oil into your hands and rub them together. Take a generous dollop of the chicken mixture and place it in one hand. Shape the ball into a long, relatively flat patty of meat, then run a skewer through the center. Place the completed skewer on a flat surface, ideally a large baking tray. (IMPORTANT - the mixture is quite sticky and the skewers are difficult to transfer - see the note below about getting them onto the grill).
Preheat a grill until it's hot enough to sear the chicken (while the grill itself should be hot when the chicken touches it, you can cook the skewers over a moderate flame or on a medium electric grill).
Brush a bit of tare sauce on the uncooked chicken skewers, then place them (sauce-side down) onto the grill. Brush a little more tare sauce on the exposed surface. Allow the chicken to cook for at least 3-4 minutes before attempting to turn the skewers.
Flip the skewers, brush with tare sauce again, and cook on the other side for an additional 3 minutes or so. Flip the skewers a few more times, brush on more sauce each time, until the chicken is cooked through (about 2-3 more minutes).
Remove the skewers from the grill and set them aside to cool. Add a dash of tare sauce (if your sauce came into contact with raw chicken, you should probably use some clean reserved sauce) and garnish with shichimi togarashi and scallions. Serve immediately.
If you can only find ground chicken breasts, use them plus a teaspoon of vegetable oil to make up for some of the lost fat content.
I quite like the flavour of a good red miso, but you could definitely use awase miso (mixed red and white), or even a not-too-sweet white miso. Feel free to experiment.
TRANSFERRING THE SKEWERS TO THE GRILL
The chicken mixture is quite sticky when uncooked, and it can be very difficult to transfer your skewers to the grill without making a mess of them. The best method to avoid catastrophy involves lining up all of your skewers on a baking tray (NOT a cutting board - it has to be heat-proof). When you're ready to cook, quickly turn the tray over onto the grill and give it a few taps to get the skewers to release. This not only gets everything cooking at the same time, it avoids the major hassle of trying to move the skewers without having them fall apart. HOWEVER - if you're going to do this, make sure you plan out the orientation of your skewers before they go on the grill. You want them to land perpendicular to the bars on your grill, not parallel. Plan accordingly, and make sure to have some tongs and oven/bbq mitts handy so you can work over a hot grill safely.