Yakiniku simply means Grilled Meat. I’ll give you some quick history. There is a temple in Shizuoka Prefecture named Gyokusen. It was founded in 1580 ish. In 1856 it was bequeathed to the USA who at the time had some rather large ships with some rather large cannons nearby. In exchange for pointing these cannons in some other direction the Shogun allowed the US to turn the temple into the very first American Consulate in Japan. Shortly after, the very first Consul General to Japan, one Townsend Harris set up offices. He then wasted no time in slaughtering a cow for some barbecue. This would become the first cow slaughtered for its meat in Japan. There is a plaque for this cow at the slaughter site and the temple is now a National Historic Treasure. In 1872 a Japanese foodie wrote a Western Food Guidebook that described this “barbecued cow cuisine” with the now famous term “yakiniku”. As time went on “grilled meat” was adapted to the Korean Style of dining where smaller cuts of meat are grilled at your table and eaten with kimchis, veggies and sauces. Cue the Korean War and suddenly restaurants are either North Korean Style or South Korean style. One being more popular than the other (guess which!) lead to the politically correct term “yakiniku”.
Welcome to Sansei
You can smell the meat grilling as soon as you walk down these steps. Sansei serves Hitachi Beef, a wagyu brand from Ibaraki Prefecture, which neighbors Tokyo. There are 3 types of Wagyu cattle. Wagyu is similar to Parmigiano Reggiano or Champagne as they are region specific. If they are not one of these 3 breed of cattle raised in Japan then it is NOT Wagyu. Different areas produce different types of meats based on best practises and local climates. You can of course find less expensive Yakiniku options that are NOT wagyu but Sansei offers this otherworldly beef for pretty reasonable prices. Wagyu is an absolute must try while in Japan. Sansei makes it available at reasonable prices.
Cheap drinks too.
How To Enjoy Yakiniku
Sort out some drinks. I know red meat usually means red wine but I personally think that Wagyu is better suited to beers and chuhis. Sansei has a rotating menu of Japanese craft beers on tap which is always fun. You could also go for the classic chuhi, which is a combination of Shochu (think vodka), something fruity and then soda water. Here they do a grapefruit shibori chuhi which is basically half of a grapefruit crushed into your glass. A Tokyo version of the Greyhound.
The most common starter for a Yakiniku meal is Beef Tongue. I’ll be totally honest and admit I HATED tongue before coming to Japan. I didn’t like it in tacos, I didn’t like it in sandwiches and I didn’t like seeing at at the butcher shop. However, these thinly sliced portions grilled rare are delicious and a great way to start your meal.
You’ll have a tiny double sided sauce plate at your table. Beef Tongue is best with salt and lemon.
The 3 Wisemen
For condiments you’ll have kochucan (fermented chili paste), lemon juice and tare (slightly sweet bbq/soy sauce). You can use these freely, no judgments. Just don’t ask for ketchup.
Starter number two went to Sakura Yukke. Which is a very pleasant term that means horse tartar. Which is a very French term meaning ground raw horse with a raw egg on top. Stay with me here, this is really good. The ground horse comes served on top of sesame oil soaked cucumber. The meat is marinated in a tare sauce and served with a raw egg on top with sesame seeds and thinly sliced daikon radish. Mix it up and eat it as is or with white rice. The texture of the horse is similar to blue fin tuna and very lean. It’s a flavor I’ve never had outside of Japan. I know this may be a turn off to some but Taste Tokyo is not above trying Chevaline. Even Americans used to eat this long ago. Probably not raw and covered in sesame oil though…
If you’ve been reading this blog since the beginning (awe, thanks) then you may recognize the word “moriawase”. It basically means sample platter. If you’re ever in a seafood, yakiniku or yakitori place in Japan you’ll always want to get the moriawase. From top left we have Jyo rosu, ranboso, kame no kou, ribukaburi, tatebara and saroin. These mean prime loin, rump roast, marbled red loin, rib, upper short rib and sirloin. All of these were just incredible, especially the upper short rib. If you don’t speak any Japanese pull out your phone and take a photo of the sample platter. You can then point to it later should you want to order a particular cut of meat again.
At this point all you have left to do is get your tongs out and start grilling. Things will get smoky but there is a long vacuum fan that can be stretched down from the ceiling to move the smoke out of the way. Every once in a while the wait staff will come and change the tiny grill you’re using. They may also bring you ice cubes. The ice cubes are for putting out flames that get too large. You’ll know when it happens.
Sansei does some great, leafy salads that I strongly recommend. They go very well with the extremely rich wagyu.
If you’re still feeling hungry after all the wagyu a kimchi jigae will go down a treat. It’s a kimchi stew of potatoes, bean sprouts and assorted veggies. Order a bowl of white rice and add it to the stew if you want to blend in with the locals.
If you’re curious, here is an article about the history of Horse Meat (chevaline) in the US. Super interesting.
Yotsuya San Chome (Tokyo Metro Marunouchi Line)