Transform Any Meatball with This Truly Unique Technique

March  5, 2018

Do you have a favorite food that makes itself at home as easily on a dinner table as it does a party spread or even a lunch box? For me, that versatile dish is a meatball. Not just any meatball, but a Japanese meatball called tsukune. In my mind, this chicken meatball is the tastiest team player of them all, delicious broiled, grilled, or pan-fried, hot or at room temperature. Flavorful on its own, but downright irresistible with its accompanying yakitori sauce called tare.

Tsukune are skewered meatballs grilled over charcoal, typically served in yakitori restaurants with a brush of sweet soy tare glaze or sprinkling of sea salt. Washed down with an ice-cold beer, there's no better bar pairing! The beauty of tsukune, though, is that they're very easy to recreate at home—no charcoal grill required.

Put these out for a party, watch 'em disappear. Photo by Julia Gartland

Namiko Chen's recipe for tsukune has been my go-to, and there's no other version I'd rather make. The talent behind the popular Just One Cookbook blog and YouTube channel has a knack for delivering accessible and delicious Japanese home cooking favorites, and her tsukune is no exception.

Hers is a mix of ground chicken and loads of fresh shiso leaves and scallions; instead of a typical bread crumb, panko, or egg binder, however, she uses a technique I had never seen before. (Ready yourselves!)

Not only does she hand knead the mixture (30 times clockwise! 30 times counterclockwise! Don't skip this step!) to create a mixture sticky enough to stay on the skewers, Nami mixes a portion of cooked chicken into her raw mixture. Now this, I had to follow-up with her about.

"The technique of mixing raw and cooked meat came from the cookbook, The Japanese Grill," Nami explains (Editor's note: I immediately ordered this book.) "It is a unique technique even for the Japanese, and it’s not a common technique to use to make tsukune. With this method, you precook some of the ground chicken first, let it cool, and mix it in with the raw ground chicken instead of making meatballs from all raw ground chicken. This prevents the meat from shrinking too much. Sometimes when you grill meat, you end up with much smaller pieces because the meat shrank after cooking. Also, this prevents the meat from losing a lot of its juice."

A meatball that keeps it shape, its luscious juiciness, and its flavor? No wonder it's a hit among adults and kids alike. And don't let the homemade sauce intimidate you at all! Skip the bottled variety and give it a go at home. "It’s super easy to make your own tare," Nami reassures. "I receive a lot of compliments about this homemade tare from my readers and we can use it for all yakitori dishes, especially if you plan to make other chicken skewers. Cooking Japanese food means having essential condiments like soy sauce, sake, mirin, and sugar. That’s all you need to make tare. You can make the sauce on low heat while you prepare other things. It’s really delicious and preservative and MSG-free!"

Enjoy these tsukune on their own or in a lunch box with rice. And try this fun technique with all of the other meatballs in your life; be sure to report back here!

Are you a fan of Japanese yakitori? Let us know below!

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Hana is a food writer/editor based in New York.