My version of Tsukune: Japanese Chicken Meatballs

A few weeks ago, my wife took me out to dinner at an Izakaya that she found. If you don’t know about Izakayas, you really need to find one and try it. An Izakaya is basically a Japanese sake bar – it’s sort-of the Japanese equivalent of a Tapas bar – you order a variety of small dishes, and eat them with your sake. Izakayas are really terrific – they’re a nice informal place to have dinner with good sake, and a variety of delicious dishes.

One of the dishes we had was Tsukune, which is a standard at Izakayas. It’s basically a meatball made from ground chicken, and served drizzled with a sauce that’s a lot like a thick, rich teriyaki. These suckers were the tenderest, most succulent meatballs I’ve ever eaten. I was strongly motivated to try to reproduce them.

So I did some research. And it turned out that there were two tricks to how really good tsukune come out that way.

One part is what goes in: pretty much any part of the bird that can get finely minced. Breast, thigh, neck, legs, wings. If the cartilage is soft enough to be minced, it goes right in with the meat.

The other part is how it’s treated. The meat has the living hell beaten out of it. It’s finely minced, and then the ground meat is kneaded and pounded until it’s all soft and firmly stuck together. That process both binds the meat without adding any extra binding agents like eggs, and tenderizes it.

I really don’t like working with cartilage. I’ve tried it in some recipes in the past, and I find it really unpleasant. It’s slimy, and it tends to sometimes form sharp edges that can cut you. Getting cut by raw meat is not something I like doing.

So I decided to try to reproduce as much of the flavor as I could, using ingredients that I had on hand. And I tried couple of tricks to get the tender texture. It’s not as tender as a true Izakaya tsukune, but it was awfully good.

I relied on three things to get the tenderness I wanted.

  1. Force: I beat the living hell out of the meat. I didn’t do it by kneading; instead, I took chicken thighs, cut the meat off the bones, and then beat the crap out of it with the flat of my meat tenderizer. By the time I was done, I wouldn’t describe the result as a particular thickness; I’d say that it had been reduced to more of a chicken paste smeared across my cutting board.
  2. Chemistry: I took that, and put it into a flat bottomed baking dish, and poured a cup of apple juice over it. There’s an enzyme in fruits from the apple family that tenderizes meat, so I let that do some work.
  3. Slow heat: Finally, I browned the meatball quickly in a pan, and then transferred them to a baking dish with the sauce, and put them into a low oven for a long time.

The result was, honestly, not very much like the tsukune from the Izakaya. But it was really, really delicious. I mean really, seriously delicious – like some of the best meatballs I’ve ever eaten. Not quite as good as the Izakaya ones, and quite different – but so, so good.

It’s not a difficult dish to make, but it is time consuming. Not really that different from other meatball recipes I’ve made: meatballs are often the kind of dish that cooks all day.

The sauce cooks for a while on its own, and then cooks more with the meatballs in it. But the chicken needs to marinate for an hour or two – so you really need to start both around the same time.

The Sauce

The sauce is basically just a slightly amped up teriyaki sauce – but homemade is so much better than the crap you get out of a bottle, and it’s really easy to make.

Ingredients
  • White part of one scallion, minced.
  • 3 cloves finely minced garlic.
  • 1 inch section of fresh ginger, finely minced.
  • 1/3 cup soy sauce (ideally good quality shoyu!).
  • 1/2 cup sake
  • 1/4 cup mirin
  • 1/2 cup apple juice
  • 1 cup chicken stock.
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar.
Instructions
  1. Heat a bit of oil in a pot. When it’s hot, add the garlic, ginger, and scallions, and cook until it’s nice and fragrant.
  2. Add the sake, and then let it reduce by half.
  3. Reduce the heat to medium-low, and add the rest of the liquids and the brown sugar.
  4. Simmer for about an hour.
  5. Remove from heat, and set aside.

The meatballs

Ingredients
  • 6 boneless chicken thighs
  • 1/4 onion, finely minced
  • 1/4 cup apple juice
  • 1/2 cup bread crumbs.
  • sliced scallion greens (the leftovers from the whites used in the sauce.)
  • flour
Instructions
  1. With a meat tenderizer, pound the heck out of the chicken thighs until they’re severely mangled and very thin.
  2. Put them into a dish with the apple juice, and put that into the refrigerator for an hour or two.
  3. Put the marinated thighs into the food processor with 1/4 cup of the sauce, and pulse a couple of times until they’re minced.
  4. Fold in the onion and the bread crumbs.
  5. Chill the ground meat for an hour until it firms up.
  6. Separate into about 30 meatballs – it should be around a heaped teaspoon per meatball.
  7. Roll each meatball in flour; flatten slightly, and then brown the two flat sides in a hot pan with a bit of oil. The meatballs will not be cooked through by this – you’re just browning the meatballs, not fully cooking them.
  8. Put the meatballs into a baking dish, cover with the sauce, and bake for 1 1/2 hours.
  9. Remove the meatballs from the sauce, and reduce the sauce until there’s just a cup or so left. Thicken with a bit of cornstarch.
  10. Pour the sauce back over the meatballs, and sprinkle with scallion greens.

Serve this on a bed of simple steamed rice, and some stir fried veggies on the side. Home cooking doesn’t get better than this.

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