Grilled Chicken Skewers Get a Japanese Twist With a Sweet-Sour Marinade

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

Editor's Note: We're very excited to welcome writer, photographer, and cook Michael Harlan Turkell to the virtual pages of Serious Eats. In this series, Michael will share some of his favorite takes on grilling recipes from around the world, all focused on the interplay of vinegar and the grill—something he knows quite a bit about, as he traveled far and wide while writing his awesome vinegar-focused cookbook, Acid Trip (coming out in August 2017). You can preorder the book here.

I am forever grateful to Portuguese missionaries. In the mid-16th century, a large number sailed from Lisbon across vast oceans, stopping along the way in places like Goa, India, for cotton and spices and Macau, China, for silk before ultimately arriving in southern Japan, making the port of Nagasaki an important trade destination.

The word "nanban", which was originally the name used for the "southern barbarians" of Southeast Asia, was for some reason reassigned to these Portuguese travelers. But nowadays when you hear nanban in Japan, it's more likely to refer to a fried chicken dish that's made with a sweet-and-sour sauce called nanbansu, which is comprised of rice vinegar, mirin, soy sauce, and sugar.

That dish is made karaage-style, where the meat is marinated, then lightly dredged and deep fried. It's the most delicious chicken nuggets you'll ever have.

There are other iterations of nanban, including one known as nanbanzuke, in which a protein (usually small fish like smelt) is fried and then submerged in a tangy vinegar bath. The result is somewhat similar to a Mediterranean escabeche, which at one time was used by mariners to preserve food while at sea, practiced by the aforementioned Portuguese missionaries.

My first interaction with nanbansu was while eating chicken nanban in Tokyo at a late-night izakaya with a man named Uchibori, a celebrated world-class vinegar-maker best identified by his signature bow ties. A self-proclaimed "su-mellier" (su means vinegar in Japanese), Uchibori represents the most recent generation of his family's rice vinegar company, which is based in Gifu Prefecture and has been in operation since 1876. Uchibori now has a number of osuya, or vinegar shops, throughout Tokyo in department store depachika (basement-level food markets) that serve "drinking vinegars," a newer fad in Japan. But it's his family's komezu (rice vinegar) that has long been used as a base for many Japanese sauces. Uchibori's rice vinegar is so soft and round, unlike any other white vinegar I've ever had, that I'd happily drink it on its own.

Nanbansu is one of the most basic of Japanese vinegar-based sauces, and it is used both for marinating and dipping. Vinegar and mirin make up the majority of the blend, with the salty umami of the soy sauce and sweetness of the sugar there to balance out the tanginess.

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This all-purpose sauce has become my go-to for marinating chicken, but it will also work well with other proteins, such as lean cuts of pork and white fish. Nanbansu is particularly ideal for grilling, because the sugars caramelize on the exterior of the chicken, leaving great grill marks and adding a pleasant texture, too. The vinegar marinade keeps the meat nice and moist, even while grilling at high heat.

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I've found the sweet spot for marinating to be around 1 or 2 days, as anything longer will tighten up the meat. Because chicken breasts need a little less time on the grill than the thighs, I like to keep them on separate skewers. I tend to prefer the darker thigh meat, which stays juicier and becomes very crispy, almost like fried chicken.

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Since the mirin and soy sauce both impart flavor and seasoning, there's little that has to be done to finish this dish, aside from waiting for it to cool down enough to eat and maybe sprinkling a little shichimi togariashi (seasoned chili powder) on it. I like to serve a little extra nanbansu on the side as a dipping sauce, which I know might seem overzealous, but isn't that how barbarians behave?

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