Tsukune, or ground meat skewers, are the first thing I order whenever I go to an izakaya, a Japanese pub (the probability they serve it is very high). As I have mentioned here, in a place specialised in yakitori (chicken skewers), tsukune’s taste measures the cook’s skills and the place’s ambitions, so if they are just average, it’s probably high time to move to a different pub… A huge majority of tsukune are prepared with chicken meat, so using another bird instead is not a revolutionary idea, but this slight modification does make a nice change and I see this stronger-flavoured version as cold-season tsukune. I found the green chilli and lime zest paste (raimu koshou, my Westernised version of yuzu koshou) an extraordinary flavours enhancer here.
If it’s the first time you come across this 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.
This recipe is loosely based on the Chicken Tsukune posted here, which was based on a recipe from Izakaya: the Japanese Pub Cookbook by Mark Robinson, a fabulous cookbook and Tokyo izakaya guide in one. As I have mentioned above, I served these tsukune with raimu koshou and its mixture of hot and slightly bitter flavours was the best seasoning I can imagine.
If you don’t have or like duck meat, you might want to try the basic, chicken tsukune version:
TIPS : For optimal results do not use ground duck breast here (you can use it as a small part of the meat mixture), otherwise the tsukune will be tough and dry.
If you cannot find ground duck legs, you can easily mix them in a food processor (this is what I did). 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 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 if you prefer it sweeter.
Raimu koshou (lime zest and chilli paste) recipe is very easy and goes perfectly with strong flavoured meat dishes or ramen soups:
If you don’t have time to make the lime and chilli paste properly (it does take several days to mature), you can try a quick version, mixing the chilli and the zest with salt just before serving the tsukune.
Special equipment: skewers (I have used 8) and a brush
Preparation: about one hour
Ingredients (serves two as a snack):
ground meat from 2 medium duck legs (about 250 – 300 g/9 – 10 oz)
1 small onion (I have used a shallot)
(optionally: grated zest from one big lemon or 2 limes)
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.
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.