KC 181 – Tsukune (Chicken Meatballs)

KC 181 – Tsukune (Chicken Meatballs)

Why hello there, and welcome back to Kitchen Catastrophes’ ongoing Asian August. Today, we return to the island nation we’ve covered a great many times before, but in a slightly new way. We’re tackling what is basically Japanese barbecue. And I’m your culinary center of the grill-gridiron, Jon O’Guin. If you want to just get to the recipe, here’s the link. For everyone who wants to hit ‘em where it hurts, let’s get in formation.


A Yak-Attack

Today’s dish is formally named tsukune yakitori, which means ‘Hot-cooked-Chicken meatballs”. Tsukune  (pronounced, according to the two recordings I listened to, as “ssuhCoo-nay”. Like the half-way point between “scoo-nay” and “suck-oo-nay”, or like slurring “ ‘s cool name” ) is technically a generic word for a particular type of meatball, coming from the Japanese verb tsukuneru, which means “to knead/make round”. Which, let me tell you, was harder to figure out than it fucking should have been. My first 4 searches for “tsukune meaning/etymology/translation” got jack and SQUAT in terms of explaining why the hell the dish is named what it is. Hell, the Wikipedia page is, at time of this writing, something of a mess, because it opens by calling it a dish of chicken meatballs, and then proceeds to note how you mix thickeners with “beef, pork, fowl, or occasionally fish”. I don’t know about you, but I don’t often make my chicken dishes with fish.

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Well, not OFTEN…

Thus, for accuracy’s sake, it’s useful to add yakitori, which I think we’ve discussed on the site in the past, but can briefly revisit. Yaki is Japanese for something best translated as “hot-cooked”, referring to foods cooked at high, typically dry, heat. It covers most of the territory we in English would use for “grilled”, “roasted” or “sautéed/fried”. If that sounds a little sloppy, consider that in English, “Fried” can refer to something tossed in a skillet with little-to-no oil, as well as something dropped into a vat of boiling oil. Japanese distinguishes between “deep fried” and “normal fried” by giving one to yaki. This is why it’s so commonly used in Japanese restaurants. Yakisoba means, literally, “yaki Soba”, referring to the noodle we’ve covered at least twice now. Teriyaki refers to the shine of the glazed meat: teri is Japanese for ‘gloss/luster/shine’

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This is technically “terikani”, or Shiny Crab.

Yakitori then, in the modern day, means “grilled/roasted chicken”. I note “modern day” because tori means “bird”, so technically grilled duck, pigeon, pheasant, etc, can ALL be called yakitori, but none of them are the agricultural powerhouse that chickens are, and thus the term is mostly used for chicken meat these days. (fun fact, tori is also the root for torii, the Shinto gates many people visually connect with Japanese culture, whose name literally means “bird place/home”)

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Japanese birdhouses are fucking HUGE .

Tsukune (and yakitori in general) are popular street foods in Japan, served at izakyas (small pubs where one would grab a quick bite and some beers after work) and yatai (food carts/stalls, most often seen during festivals) Interestingly, the vigor of the Japanese yatai scene is apparently up for some debate: many prefectures have banned them except at festivals due to health concerns in the 60’s and 70’s. One prefecture has literally ONE yatai still functioning, which will end when the owner retires. Others have relaxed their restrictions, even recently offering new licenses.

What is NOT up for debate is how great tsukune are! Probably. Yeah…um…well, there’s no avoiding it: our recipe went pretty weird, and we’re not sure why, but while the end result was (SPOILERS) pretty good, we didn’t QUITE make them right. Which is AMAZING, since, as you’ll see, this is a very simple recipe; it’s so simple, in fact, that I actually made TWO recipes for this post, in order to add some heft today’s post. Luckily, we’ve already covered half of the ground: the other recipe is something simple and sticky we already discussed: Teriyaki sauce.

It’s Terin’ Up My Heart

Now, as I mentioned, Teriyaki really just means “shiny grill”. As such, the EXACT ingredients of a given teriyaki sauce are the purview of the chef, but there’s typically 3 main ingredients: soy sauce, sake, and sugar. It’s the caramelizing sugar that gives the sauce its sheen, while the sake (typically mirin, a specifically heavily spiced/flavored cooking sake we recently used to make imitation crab) adds some complexity and acidity to the salty-umami of the soy sauce.

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I thought I had a picture here, but I was wrong. So instead, enjoy this picture of Teriyaki beef.

This recipe, courtesy of the book My Street Food Kitchen (A cookbook I grabbed several months ago, as my interest in street foods has been steadily growing for some time), ups the complexity to dazzling new heights…by adding lemon juice, and using both mirin AND normal sake.

The recipe Is also stupidly easy: whisk together ingredients, bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer until thickened, about 5 minutes. Ours actually simmered for a LOT longer, and still could have potentially been thicker, in my opinion, but that’s the downside to cooking on a stove older than you are. Recently, while I’m in Leavenworth, I keep getting completely surprised at how fast water boils on the stove here.

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A watched sauce never syrups.

Anyway, once that saucy little detour is done, I guess we can get back to the main event: the meatballs.


And now, the New Batman of Japan: George Tsukune!

That is a hell of a stretch, title Jon, thinking they’ll have remembered our fumbling attempts to explain how to say Tsukune well enough to understand that Japan is in for some subtextually gay, be-nippled Caped Crusaders.

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Honestly, it probably plays a little better in Japan.

Anywho, this is a meat ball recipe, so step oen is to just chop up a bunch of  stuff and blend it. Actually, I lie: step ONE is to soak some skewers, because you’re going to be grilling these bad boys and don’t want the wood to catch fire when you do. Unless that’s something you’re experimenting with: I recently saw a high-end Japanese place that ‘recycled’ their cedar chopsticks by soaking and burning them to smoke new dishes. Shit was wild.  Also irrelevant. Sorry, it’s a little late here.  STEP TWO is to chop up stuff to be blended.

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It bugs me a LITTLE to chop stuff before throwing it into a machine built for chopping, but I get the idea.

Mostly, they’re simple aromatics; ginger, garlic, green onion (lot of three-part alliteration in this post. The teriyaki was triple-S, now triple Gs…), the zest of one lemon (which is great, since the teriyaki uses the JUICE of one lemon, so if you make both, you’re being really lemon-efficient) and chicken thighs. I let Nate trim the chicken thighs, because I was busy attempting to explain “if you have a question about the recipe, look at the open cookbook sitting in the middle of the kitchen, or the list I wrote explaining what needs to be done when”, because, in order to prep for my trip to Leavenworth and keep me from blowing through my sweet blog money buying produce in a mountain, we’d cook 3 (well, 5 if you count both sauces) recipes in one evening, so managing my family to get things done was an adventure.

Once it’s all chopped, just blend it up, then roll into balls. Looking back, maybe the trick is that we used the wrong mental framework: as I noted, I only JUST learned that Tsukune means “kneaded”, and in MOST meatball recipes, they make it very clear the less you touch it, the better. So perhaps we didn’t squeeze the meat enough as we formed it into balls. Either that, or the heat of the day and the kitchen was melting the chicken fat, because our problem was that while we got the chicken onto skewers long enough for me to take a picture…

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I am only moderately sure these are pre-grilling, as the sauce shouldn’t be here…

We did NOT keep them on the skewers, as the skewers just pulled through the meat like it wasn’t even there. We ended up using a grill grate and just placing and turning each ball individually. I have no photos of this process, because, again, we were cooking like, 4 things at the same time. However, once we brought them in, and basted them with the teriyaki sauce, they honestly looked pretty solid.

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I told you about my shiny salty balls.

Taste-wise, they were fine. I think, personally, I could have used a little more garlic and ginger in the mixture, but they weren’t bad at all, just not particularly amazing. And for something this simple and quick, that’s actually a solid result. You can explore using different aromatics or even meats, and find something that really clicks with you. Try this out yourselves, and let us know if there’s a recipe you end up really liking!

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Welcome to the


Tsukune Yakitori

Serves 6 as a snack, 3 as an entrée



Skewers for grilling

1 tbsp chopped carrot

2 green onions, chopped

1 garlic clove

1 ¾” (2 cm) piece of ginger, chopped

1 lb 2 oz (500 g) boneless, skinless chicken thighs, chopped

2 tsp soy sauce

Zest of one lemon, grated

Salt and pepper

Vegetable oil

Teriyaki sauce (see below)



  1. If using wooden skewers, soak for 30 minutes to prevent burning.

  2. In a large food processor, pulse carrot, green onion, garlic, and ginger until finely chopped. Add chicken thighs, soy sauce, and lemon zest, and process until finely chopped.

  3. Form into 18 portions with oiled hands, and roll into meatballs. Season with Salt and pepper.

  4. Place 3 meatballs per skewer, cover with more oil, and grill for 2 minutes per side. Brush with teriyaki sauce until thickly glazed and serve.


Teriyaki sauce


¼ cup soy sauce

¼ cup mirin

¼ cup sake

1.5 oz of superfine/caster sugar (a fine granulated sugar used in Europe. You can use granulated with little difference)



  1. Whisk together all ingredients in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil, and simmer over low heat for 5 minutes until thick and syrupy.