My compatriots’ naiveté often surprises me as much as the Japanese’s does: like the latter, the former assume (although, admittedly, justifiably so because of their seniority and glorious past) that almost everything comes from them, was born in their land and remains its privilege, even in cases –and this is where naiveté kicks in- where the “idea” is so rudimentary that it is impossible for anyone to claim its exclusive authorship. One characteristic such case is meat that is grilled skewered on a piece of wood –what in Greece we call “souvlaki”: how could anyone believe that something that incredibly simple could have been devised by only one people? Still, both Greeks and Japanese do!
I am not a food historian so I won’t try to trace the origin of the particular preparation of meat; I imagine though that our ancestors came up with it a little after they discovered fire, when there weren’t yet neither Japanese nor Greeks. What I do know is that the Japanese’s imagination (or rather, the necessity that sparked it) has created countless variations of kushiyaki (串焼き) i.e. “that which is grilled on a spit”, especially as applied to chicken, the omnipresent –particularly near train stations and in narrow alleys- “yakitori” (焼鳥), the most prevalent, cheap and tasty snack for a beer before returning home after twelve hours of work.
There isn’t any part of a chicken –from its breast to its skin or its joints- that isn’t available in the tiny yakitori-ya with the red lantern in the entrance, the grill taking only ten pieces per run and the cook standing next to it and cooking them patiently, rotating them just a few degrees each time. Just salted or flavored with the spice mixture shichimi togarashi (七味唐辛子) or the sweet “tare” (垂れ/たれ) sauce, mixed with leek, mushrooms, green pepper, bacon, tofu, garlic, onion, tomato or asparagus and accompanied by a beer or a whisky highball with lots of soda and the scent of the next being grilled blending with the cigarette smoke, the sound of sports news from the small TV set in the back of the shop and the laughter of the patrons sitting on its 5-10 stools, yakitori spell “Japanese alley” in the most delicious accent.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.