Japanese Vegetable Skewers aka Vegetable Yakitori
If you love grilled vegetables, you’re going to love Japanese grilled vegetable yakitori.
Eating grilled vegetables off a stick is simply the best, it’s the only way to do it! The best grilled vegetable yakitori I’ve ever had were in Tokyo. I still dream of them today: fresh from the farm vegetables skewered onto wooden sticks lightly grilled over charcoal and dipped in an addictive sweet and savory sauce.
If you’ve been to Japan, you’ve most likely have indulged in yakitori: smoky, tender, juicy skewers of grilled chicken either dipped in a savory sauce or sprinkled with salt. Yakitori is the ultimate food. It can be fancy (think 3 Michelin starred restaurants) or be made at home. The chicken yakitori is amazing, but even better are the vegetable skewers. Most fancy yakitori places actually place higher value on the vegetable skewers because seasonal vegetables are exceptional and high value in Japan. You can get special vegetables like the first negi of spring(extra large Japanese green onions) or roasted gingko nuts.
What is yakitori?
Yakitori is Japan’s answer to grilled chicken. Yakitori is bite-size pieces of chicken threaded onto skewers and grilled over binchotan, a special Japanese charcoal that gets extra hot. The skewers come seasoned with salt (shio) or sauce (tare).
Is yakitori chicken only?
Yakitori is technically chicken but colloquially, people refer to all grilled Japanese skewers as yakitori. Even at specialized yakitori shops, they have skewers of things like quail eggs, beef, pork, mochi, and vegetables.
What is vegetable yakitori
Vegetable yakitori is kind of a misnomer, but essentially, it’s vegetables skewers grilled yakitori style – that is, bite-sized pieces of vegetables threaded onto short skewers and grilled until tender and slightly charred. Vegetable yakitori can be lightly sprinkled with just salt but here we’re going to make a Japanese tare for a glossy, sweet and savory finish.
What vegetables for yakitori
The best vegetables for grilling are ones that are slightly sturdy but don’t take too long to cook. In this case, we’re going to grill tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini, red onion, bell peppers, king oyster mushrooms, shishito, and asparagus.
How to cut vegetables for vegetable skewers
The best way to cut vegetables for vegetable yakitori is in 3/4 inch by 2.5 inch sticks. Think carrot sticks, but slightly shorter and stubbier. The baton-like shape makes it easy to thread the vegetables onto skewers and the large surface area helps the vegetables cook quickly and evenly. Here’s how you cut/prep everything:
- Japanese eggplant – wash, dry, then trim the tips and tails. Cut the eggplant into 2.5-3 inch lengths. Cut each section in half, then cut the halves into thirds. Thread the eggplant onto skewers with 4 pieces per skewer.
- zucchini – wash, dry, and trim the tips and tails. Cut the zucchini into 2.5-3 inch lengths. Cut each section in half, then cut the halves into thirds. Thread the zucchini onto skewers with 4 pieces per skewer.
- king oyster mushrooms – wash, dry, and trim the bottom of the mushroom. Cut the mushroom into equal lengths, making sure to keep the mushroom cap intact with some stem. Cut the mushroom lengths into quarter wedges. Thread the mushrooms onto skewers with 4 pieces per skewer.
- bell pepper – wash dry, and deseed the peppers. Cut into 2 inch by 3/4 inch strips. Thread the peppers onto skewers with 8 pieces per skewer.
- shishito peppers – wash and dry the peppers. Thread them onto skewers, about 4-6 whole peppers per skewer. You can also double skewer these with a bit of space in between the two skewers. Shishitos have a tendency to turn on the skewer as you cook them, so using two skewers helps you flip them easily.
- cherry tomatoes – wash, dry, and thread 4 tomatoes onto each skewer.
- red onion – peel the onion then trim off the top and bottom. Cut the in half along the equator. You should have two half spheres. Place the large cut sides down onto the cutting board, then cut into halves. Cut the halves into thirds, keeping the onion slices together. Thread the wedges onto skewers with 3 wedges per skewer.
- asparagus – trim off the woody ends then cut the asparagus into 2.5 inch lengths. Skewer 6-8 pieces on per skewer.
Vegetable yakitori sauce
Yakitori sauce is tare (which translates to sauce in Japanese) and it contains the classic Japanese combination of sake, mirin, soy, and sugar.
- sake – aka Japanese rice wine. It adds umami and a natural sweetness. Just like wine in French cooking adds an extra layer of aroma and flavor, sake is common in Japanese cooking – it’s in almost every sauce. They sell cooking sake at Asian grocery stores, or if you’re feeling flush, you can use the nice sake you have for drinking. Buy a bottle and you won’t regret it, it’ll take your Japanese cooking to another level.
- mirin – Japanese sweet rice wine and the other ingredient that is key in Japanese cooking. Compared to sake, it has a lower alcohol content and higher sugar content that occurs naturally from fermentation. It’s used as a seasoning and glazing agent. They sell mirin in the Asian aisle and at Asian grocery stores.
- soy sauce – I’m pretty sure you have a bottle of soy sauce in your pantry. It adds umami, a glorious brown sheen, and is delicious. A Japanese naturally brewed soy sauce would be best for this tare.
- sugar – this helps thicken the sauce as well as adding a glossy sweetness. We like to use brown sugar but any sugar or sweetener will do.
- green onions, ginger, garlic – these aromatics are optional and aren’t typically found in traditional tare but I find that they add a pleasant flavor that accentuates the freshness of vegetable yakitori.
At yakitori shops, they have a tare pot where they simply dip entire skewers. The tare recipes are closely held secrets and there are even rumors of “forever tare” where the sauce is continuously replenished in the same pot. The result is an intensely savory sauce that develops over time as the grilled skewers infuse their flavors and fats directly into the sauce pot.
How to grill vegetable yakitori skewers
The good news is that grilling vegetables is super easy. Heat the grill to medium-high. Brush the grill or the vegetable skewers with a neutral oil then set them on the grill. Flip them every 2-3 minutes so they grill evenly on both sides. They’re done when they’re tender and have a bit of color on them, generally, it takes about 5-8 minutes, depending on the vegetable and size. When the vegetables are tender, move them off the grill and generously brush all sides with tare then place the skewers back on the grill to lightly caramelize the sauce. Enjoy hot, right off the grill, but be careful not to burn yourself on the deliciousness!
What kind of grill for yakitori
Traditionally you would use a grill with binchotan – a special type of Japanese charcoal that gets extra hot and burns bright white. At home you can use a regular BBQ grill, a grill pan, a cast iron-pan, or even the broiler in your oven. Our favorite way to grill is to use the tiny electric yakitori grill we packed home from Japan, but we also regularly use our gas BBQ grill as well.
What kind of skewers for yakitori
There’s a huge variety of skewers out there for yakitori, from double pronged to thick flat sticks, to simple short rounds. Typically Japanese yakitori skewers are shorter than what you normally see at a BBQ. They’re about 6 inches in length. You can order them on amazon: here are some regular ones and here are the one that have a flat tab at the end). Usually you can find short skewers at the grocery store too. Make sure you soak them in water for at least 1 hour before grilling, otherwise the sticks might burn and break off.
Extra seasoning for yakitori
Most yakitori-ya (yakitori shops/restaurants) pride themselves on their tare so they don’t really give you anything extra to season your skewers with. The exception is shichimi togarashi or sansho pepper. Both are delicious!
- Shichimi togarashi is a seven spice mixture containing ground chili pepper, ground ginger, sansho, black sesame, white sesame, dried orange peel, and nori. It’s pleasantly spicy with a citrusy aftertaste.
- Sansho is a Japanese peppercorn with a lemony citrus flavor that has a slight numbing effect, kind of like Sichuan peppercorns. It comes finely ground so you can sprinkle it on as you please.
How to throw a vegetable yakitori party
- Make the sauce – you can make the yakitori tare the morning or day before your yakitori party. It’s best to go ahead and make a double batch so you don’t run out. The sauce will keep in the fridge, tightly covered, for up to a week.
- Prep the yakitori – Soak the skewers, wash all the vegetables, cut, and skewer everything. You can do this ahead of time, just make sure to cover everything tightly and keep it in the fridge before grilling.
- Set the table – You’ll need a portable indoor grill or a portable indoor burner with a large pan or grill pan. Place the grill in the center of the table so everyone can reach. Pour some neutral oil into a glass or liquid measuring cup along with a brush so you can oil the grill. Pour the yakitori sauce into a tall, thin container (one that you can easily dip the skewers into). Add plates, chopsticks, glasses, and napkins. Set out the shichimi togarashi and sansho. Have an empty cup for discarded skewers. Add some personal decorative touches. Set out the plates/trays of vegetable yakitori.
- Pour the drinks – anything you like: Japanese beer, sake, maybe some iced oolong tea or sparkling tea.
- Grill and enjoy – Heat up the grill at the table, add the skewers, grill, drink, and chat the night away.
What to serve with vegetable yakitori
Usually vegetable yakitori and chicken yakitori go hand in hand and you end up pretty full. But if you’re making a meal of just vegetable yakitori, I recommend a fluffy bowl of rice, really good miso soup, and some pickled cucumber sunomono.
Happy grilling friends! I’m so happy it’s grilling season again!
If you love grilled vegetables, you’re going to love Japanese grilled vegetable yakitori.
- 1 Japanese eggplant
- 1 zucchini
- 2 king oyster mushrooms
- 1 bell pepper
- 24 shishito peppers
- 24 cherry tomatoes
- 1 red onion
- 8 spears asparagus
- 1/2 cup soy sauce
- 1/2 cup mirin
- 1/4 cup sake
- 2 tbsp sugar
- 4 green onions whites only
- 1 clove garlic
- 1 slice ginger
In a very small pot, combine the soy sauce, mirin, sake, sugar, green onion whites, garlic, and ginger. Bring to a simmer over medium heat and when bubbly, reduce the heat to low. Let the sauce bubble away and reduce until it’s thick and glossy, it should take about 20 minutes. Keep and eye on it and stir it every once in a while. While the tare is reducing, you can prep the vegetables. When the sauce is slightly thick, remove the aromatics and discard.
Wash the vegetables and cut into 2-2.5 inch even bite-sized pieces that are easy to thread onto skewers. Long, baton-like shapes work best.
Thread the vegetables onto the skewers, with 4-6 pieces of vegetables per stick.
Grill the skewers on a medium-hot grill, flipping occasionally, until the vegetables are tender and slightly charred, about 5-8 minutes, depending on the vegetable.
Brush the yakitori generously with the tare and continue to grill for 1-2 more minutes or until the tare caramelizes slightly. Enjoy hot!
Estimated nutrition is for 1 tbsp tare, no vegetables.
Amount Per Serving (1 tbsp)
% Daily Value*
Saturated Fat 0.01g0%
* Percent Daily Values are based on a 2000 calorie diet.