We've all eaten our share of skin, be it Thanksgiving's roast turkey, pork cracklings and chicharrónes, or even crispy skin-on salmon. But if skin is your fatty, guilty pleasure, yakitori cuisine is a mainstay.
In yakitori—the centuries-old Japanese tradition of grilling nearly every single piece of the chicken—chicken skin, or kawa, is pretty standard, with several strips of epidermis folded onto a skewer and grilled until caramelized. But other types of skin were a rarity at yakitori dens until recently.
The rich history behind humble yakitori was a huge inspiration for Chef Matthias Merges'sYusho, with a particular focus on chicken skin. "We went back to skin being used as a component rather than a focused preparation," Merges says. "Lots of chefs use skin in deconstructed ways. They take a monkfish [for example] and use the skin, use the bones as part of one preparation. The thought behind [our dish] is that these skins are so delicious and unique on their own. The next logical step was to make a preparation of just the skin."
In strictest yakitori terms, Merges' Skin Tasting takes some liberties. He pairs the traditional chicken skin (trimmed and baked very non-traditionally, leaving it looking like lacquered oak instead of rumpled and skewered), with pig and salmon.
Merges has taken the skin tasting further, having experimented with other skins (monkfish, fluke, duck, and goose) when they are available. Goose skin, for example, is particularly tough compared to chicken skin, and needs to be broken down a bit more before baking. Monkfish is thin and needs a gentler approach; Merges poaches it in dashi until soft and then stretches the skin and dehydrates it before frying.
All of his skins have been popular, Merges says, but it's the pork skin that's invariably the star of the show, providing an airy porcine punch in the mouth without the typical teeth-sticking gumminess associated with most pork skin preparations. "The pork was the hardest to get right. A lot of pork skin is crackling, but can be tough and hard," Merges says. It can also be labor intensive, requiring a day's worth of sous vide cooking, meticulous effort to scrape away as much of the fat as possible, and another day or more to dehydrate. "It took a while to figure how far to take it," Merges says. "But it's definitely popular."
The focus on what is essentially street food—no matter how gussied up—was seemingly a strange turn for Merges, who was one of the most high-profile alums to leave Charlie Trotter's after it closed earlier this year. Merges originally wanted to open an American restaurant (something he still hopes to do), but after settling on a location in the hip Logan Square neighborhood of Chicago, he decided instead on yakitori. "Street food is the great equalizer—no glamour required," Yusho's website states.
Merges is an also aficionado of Japanese cuisine and culture, as well as an adherent of sorts to the warrior code of bushido, admiring the focus and discipline it imparts as much as he does the simple purity of Japanese cuisine. "I wanted to keep [our menu] clean and focused," he says, pointing out that in Japan, you might have a restaurant devoted simply to one type of yakitori. "I wanted to make sure the food spoke for itself, where it was recognizable and delicious."
Trimming the chicken skin of its fat
Scraping the meat from the salmon skin
Scraped salmon skin
Trimming the pork skin of its fat
Trimming the pork skin of its fat
Sealing the pork skin for sous vide cooking
Salmon and pork skin ready for cooking
Skin Tasting: Pig, Salmon, and Chicken
Pig Skin Technique:
1. Seal the skin in a vacuum bag and cook sous vide for 12 hours at 74°C.
2. Chill the skin; remove the fat and membrane, taking care to cut as closely to the skin as possible.
3. Dehydrate the cleaned skin for 24 hours.
4. Fry skin until puffed; season to taste.
Salmon Skin Technique:
1. Scrape meat and scales from the skin.
2. Place on a silicone mat-lined sheet tray and season, then cover with another silicone mat.
3. Bake at 325°F for 22 minutes, rotating the tray halfway through.
Chicken Skin Technique:
1. Place skin on a silicone mat-lined sheet tray and season, then cover with another silicone mat-lined.
2. Bake at 375°F for 50 minutes, rotating the tray at least three times to even out the cooking.
3. Drizzle baked skin with garlic chips, honey, mustard, and citrus zest.