Tsukune, 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)
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. I have also sprinkled them with ground black pepper.