Tsukune つくね (Grilled Chicken Meatballs) with Lemon Zest

tsukunecitronpTsukune, in appearance a humble meat patty, is the first thing I order in a yakitori-serving restaurant in Japan because its taste and texture reflect the cook’s skills and/or imagination. My favourite tsukune in Tokyo contained aromatic yuzu (Japanese citrus) zest. Trying to copy them with locally available fruits I have added lemon zest and, even though they couldn’t hold a candle to the yuzu version, my tsukune turned out delicious and original.

The name “tsukune (捏ね or つくね)” apparently comes from the verb “tsukuneru” (to knead) and refers to the fact that the patties shaping process involves more or less kneading. Even though they are usually made with chicken, other meats can also be used or a mixture of meats. The shape also varies: while most yakitori-serving restaurants give them an oval shape and grill them on skewers, tsukune can also be round and pan-fried or simmered in soups. The grilled skewered version is the only one I tasted during my two trips to Tokyo, so I tried to copy this one for now.

This simple recipe comes from the fascinating Izakaya: the Japanese Pub Cookbook by Mark Robinson where I discovered not only interesting dishes and snacks, but, most of all, fantastic Tokyo izakayas, one of which serves the above-mentioned yuzu tsukune I will never forget. Since Mark Robinson was given tsukune instructions from my beloved izakaya, I couldn’t imagine a better recipe source. I found it surprisingly effortless and simple: no binders (such as egg), no fillers, but simply good juicy meat, onion and yuzu zest. The author says that the main secrets are the use of various chicken parts (such as skin, offal or cartilage) and long meat kneading, but I decided to use simply skinned leg meat, which is relatively easy to mince at home and didn’t knead it really. My tsukune were not perfectly shaped and couldn’t even compare to the ones from the Tokyo izakaya, but they turned out juicy, aromatic and extremely flavoursome.

If you don’t like the lemon zest idea or are simply looking for other options and inspiration, you should check Nami’s gorgeous tsukune with shiso/perilla leaves (on Just One Cookbook blog).

TIPS : For optimal results do not use ground chicken breast here, unless they are the minority of the ground meat. The second time I prepared these tsukune with a mixture of chicken breast and legs (1:1): they were slightly dry and not even half as good as those made with leg meat only.

If you cannot find ground chicken legs, you can easily mix them in a food processor (this is what I did; I also debone chicken legs because it’s cheaper and really quick). After grinding, remove any long stringy white bits you see (unless you have a real meat grinder; then the result should be perfect). You can grind the meat almost to a pulp, if you wish, but personally I liked the slightly chunky texture too.

I prefer my teriyaki glaze less sweet than the one usually served in Japanese restaurants, but feel free to add more mirin or sugar.

Special equipment: skewers (I have used 8) and a brush


Ingredients (serves two as a snack):

ground meat from 2 medium chicken legs (about 250 – 300 g/9 – 10 oz)

1 small onion (I have used a shallot)

grated zest from one big lemon (preferably organic)

salt, pepper


Teriyaki glaze:

3 tablespoons soy sauce

1 tablespoon sake

1 tablespoon mirin (sweet cooking sake)

Chop the onion and combine with the zest, the salt and the pepper.

Refrigerate for one hour (you can skip this step if you are in a hurry, but it lets the flavours mix better together).

15 minutes before grilling or pan-frying, soak the skewers (if you use wooden ones) in water.

Form equal balls in your palms, slightly kneading the meat.

Give the balls an oval shape and “stick” them around the skewers, pressing with your palm, making sure they don’t fall off the skewer (I was worried they would fall, but mine never did).

Heat the glaze ingredients in a pan until it thickens.

Put aside.

Grill the skewers on a grill or on a pan, turning them regularly.

If you grill them on a pan, I advise keeping the pan covered, so that you don’t end up with raw meat inside and burnt outside. I turned them four times (as if they had four sides), each time after about a minute.

Just before serving, warm the teriyaki glaze a bit and brush the skewers with it. I have also sprinkled them with ground black pepper.

29 Replies to “Tsukune つくね (Grilled Chicken Meatballs) with Lemon Zest”

  1. I know that I’d love these flavourful chicken skewers and only wish that I had access to yuzu to try to make them at home. Too many people neglect chicken thighs for those tasteless and usually dry breasts. I actually find deboning chicken thighs theraupeutic so when I find them on sale, I set myself up with a big cup of coffee and my boning knife and go to town on a big batch. They’re great for tandoori chicken as well (as are drumsticks). MUCH more flavourful than breasts.

    1. Thanks a lot, A_Boleyn. I don’t know if you have noticed, but I made them with normal yellow lemon zest (I don’t have yuzu sold here either). They were still fantastic, so I strongly advise you this Western substitution.
      I’m glad you also debone chicken… I keep on buying whole chickens for years, so cutting up chicken, removing the skin and deboning the thighs have become my weekly activities. I agree about thighs. I used to eat breasts all the time, but then I started to discover dishes, where breasts are very dry or tasteless… or both, but no longer!
      Did you know chicken thighs are more expensive in Japan (than breasts)?

  2. Yes, Sissi, I did read your comment about the lack of yuzu. It’s a shame that yuzu isn’t grown in other countries the way they grow other citrus fruits.

    Locally WINGS are more expensive than breasts when the breasts are on sale. Wings are rarely on sale and you pay a premium price for the whole (including the wing tip) wings.

    1. Sorry, I thought you haven’t seen my replacement. Yuzu isn’t so popular alas… and I’ve read it’s difficult to grow (and very long) so maybe people don’t want to invest in it…
      Wings? Wow! Here they are the least expensive chicken part, but people don’t eat it as often as (from what I understood) in the US or Canada.

  3. Every sports bar and restaurant serves Buffalo chicken wings with celery and carrot sticks and a blue cheese dip. Even on half price wing nights, the wings are pretty pricey so they can make a profit on them as well as pitchers of beer.

  4. Tsukune is one of my favorite izakaya items! (Nikujaga is another.)
    Have you ever had a fish counterpart like iwashi no tumire (イワシ(いわし、鰯)のつみれ)? It’s one of my favorite oden items!

    1. Mine too! I have never had iwashi not tumire. I must add it to my tasting list for next trip to Japan. (Actually I have never had oden…).

  5. I can imagine why this dish is so appealing to you Sissi, the lemon zest freshens it up a brightens all of the beautiful flavours. I love them on the sticks, a perfect little hors d’œuvres.

    1. Thank you, Eva. It’s funny how sticks change everything… If I made them just like round normal patties, they wouldn’t be so appealing, I’m sure.

  6. I love simple Japanese dishes like this, Sissi. I just noticed that you didn’t add sugar on the glazing. Is it because of the Mirin being sweet enough? I guess sugar can be added to taste, right? But those little patties look so mouthwatering, Sissi. I hope you are having a wonderful week. 🙂

    1. Thank you so much, Ray. As I have mentioned in the tips, I don’t like very sweet teriyaki glaze. I think it’s delicious enough with sweet mirin… but most people add sugar of course!

    1. Thanks a lot, Squishy Monster. Sorry, I meant to say that I have to debone chicken legs too… because they are expensive when boned. Then I have to grind the meat because I haven’t seen ground good quality chicken meat here (I mean free range or organic). In general here people don’t use ground chicken meat…

  7. looking at your little skewers, I had no idea (and would never have guessed) that they were made from ground meat. They look like fillets — singular, intact pieces of chicken — I’ve never seen this before and I’m amazed at how you’ve accomplished it! I’m quite certain mine would never make it on to the stick 😉 (crumble, fall, drop, you name it). Fascinating recipe idea though – I must pluck up the courage to try sticking the meat to the stick! :). I know I would love the lemon here — a beautiful, lively contrast and burst of freshness.

    1. Hi Kelly, thank you so much for all the compliments. I’m blushing 🙂 I thought they looked messy actually… Some bloggers (like Nami) make such smooth, perfectly shaped tsukune…
      Strangely they stick very easily (I was worried they wouldn’t). It’s very easy to prepare and frankly there is something very different about them…

  8. Hi Sissi, I have been MIA again from the blogsphere for far too long! But it’s great that the first post I see after being away for some time is the delicious tsukune :)! I have seen Nami’s tsukune post and have been wanting to make it for some time too. Yours just look as delicious as Nami’s, well done, Sissi :)!

  9. Hi Sissi! I read your Tsukune post when it came into my inbox but sorry I couldn’t come here earlier to write a comment. Your Tsukune looks so good! I like to dip tsukune in yuzu kosho too. Hmmm your post made me extra hungry now! Thank you so much for the kind mention in the post. You’re too kind. As always you include great tips in your recipe – it’s great!

    1. Hi, Nami. Thank you so much for the compliments. I know they don’t hold a candle to yours… I will never manage such beautiful neat ones… Now that I make “raimu koshou”, I can use it as a replacement of yuzu koshou 😉

  10. This too is what I’ll order first at a yakitori. They say you can tell the skill of a yakitori chef from this dish. The traditional dipping sauce I’ve had for this is a raw egg yolk in soy sauce. Yes sounds odd, maybe even gross, but it works perfectly with the juicy grilled meat! I’m going to give your tips a go! First I’ll try the simple version you’ve had here, and then I really want to see if using different kinds of meat will make a difference! I know the kneading does as my mum insists on that to get juicy ‘bouncy’ fillings for dumplings too! Awesome Sissi- haven’t had much time to comment these days but I’ve always been reading and I loved this post! x

    1. Hi, Shu Han. So nice to see you again here! Thank you so much! This is a very simple dish, but soooo good! Raw egg yolk sounds great if it sets a bit when in contact with hot meat.

    1. Thanks a lot! I don’t make perfectly shaped tsukune, but as long as they taste good, I’m happy.

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