Recently, inspired by a snack I had in a restaurant, I decided to make tsukune. These chicken meatballs are a staple in yakitori restaurants, which use every part of the bird in creative ways.

The whole thing began with a plate of nankotsu at Jade Palace, a Chinese restaurant in the basement of Forum The Shopping Mall. It is a good example of frugal food. The cooks cut out the cartilage in between the leg and thigh bones, coat them in a light batter and deep fry them.

The result is a plate of crunchy bits, so good with beer. Mimigar, an Okinawan restaurant at The Gallery hotel, uses the triangular piece of cartilage from the chicken breast bone for its nankotsu. The cartilage also adds a satisfying crunch to tsukune.

Recipe: Japanese-style chicken meatballs
Tsukune (Japanese-style meatballs) are commonly served at
yakitori restaurants covered with the sweet tare sauce. PHOTO:

These chicken balls are delicious and having tried making them with leg and thigh meat, and breast meat, I have come to the conclusion that the breast is better for the dish.

For one, it is fiddly work to cut out all the cartilage from the leg and thigh bones. The gristle from chicken drumstick is hard to remove too and you do not want them in the tsukune.

Chicken breast meat comes cleanly away from the bone, and chicken sellers in wet markets will gladly debone them. Ask them to give you the skin and bones too.

The tip of the breast bone is pure cartilage, so easy to snip off with sharp kitchen shears.


Serves four as a snack


1 whole chicken breast, bone-in, skin on, about 550 to 600g
2-3 stalks scallions
2 large dried shiitake mushrooms
30g young ginger
3 Tbs cornstarch
1 Tbs sesame oil
2 Tbs shoyu (Japanese soy sauce)
1 Tbs sake
1 Tbs mirin
2 Tbs peanut oil
1 tsp toasted white sesame seeds (optional)
1 stalk scallion, sliced, for garnish (optional)

1 Tbs sugar
50ml shoyu
50ml sake
50ml mirin
1 tsp cornstarch
2 tsp water

1. Have the butcher debone the chicken breast and ask for the skin and bones. Or debone the chicken using a sharp boning knife. Make a vertical cut down the centre of the two breast halves, then insert knife between bone and meat, gliding it forward to separate meat from bone. Rinse the chicken breasts under running water, pat dry with paper towels. Remove the skin, chop finely. Cut the meat into 2cm chunks.

2. Using a pair of kitchen shears, cut out the triangular cartilage from the tip of the breast bone. Using the shears, cut the cartilage into small pieces the size of coarse salt. Set aside. Reserve the rest of the carcass for stock.

3. Rinse the scallions under running water, cleaning the root end thoroughly. Peel off and discard the outer layer of the root end, slice off and discard the roots. Dry the scallions with paper towels and slice into 2cm lengths.

4. Using a Microplane or grater with fine holes, grate the dried shiitake mushrooms into a small bowl.

5. Use a spoon to scrape the skin off the ginger. Grate the ginger, squeeze out the juice. Set the ginger juice aside, discard the pulp.

6. Place the chicken skin, chicken cartilage and scallions into a food processor. Process until fine. Add the chunks of chicken and process, but not too finely, so that there is some texture to the meat.

7. Scrape the chicken mixture into a large mixing bowl. Add the grated mushroom, ginger juice, cornstarch, shoyu, sake and mirin. Mix thoroughly. At this point, the mixture can be stored in a covered container overnight. If using immediately, let the mixture sit for about 15 minutes so the flavours meld.

8. In the meantime, make the tare. Measure the sugar, shoyu, sake and mirin into a small saucepan. Mix the cornstarch with the water, set aside.

9. Bring the shoyu mixture to a gentle boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Add the cornstarch mixture and continue stirring as the mixture bubbles and thickens. When it coats the back of a wooden spoon, turn off the heat, pour the tare into a small bowl, set aside.

10. Divide the chicken mixture into four and make five balls out of each portion. Heat the oil in a large frypan over medium-low heat. When the surface starts to shimmer, add the balls. Do not crowd the pan. Cook them in two to three batches, if need be, until they are golden brown.

11. Place the chicken balls on a plate, glaze with the tare. Sprinkle sesame seeds and scallions over them, if using, before serving.

This article was first run in The Straits Times newspaper on June 23, 2013. For similar stories, go to You will not be able to access the Premium section of The Straits Times website unless you are already a subscriber.