The Mysterious Origins of “Teriyaki Chicken”

Growing up in Seattle, WA, on the west coast of the United States, I was relatively familiar with Asian foods and cultures due to the large and deeply-rooted population of immigrants from all over Asia. My family used to meet up on special occasions at a Chinese restaurant called the Sea Garden in Seattle’s International District, and my grandfather even knew the owner. For a cheaper, quicker, and slightly dirtier option, my friends and I would often eat at one of the numerous “teriyaki chicken” restaurants that can be found all over the city. Teriyaki chicken describes butterflied chicken breasts usually served “donburi” style (over rice) with a sweet “teriyaki” sauce. To us, this was Japanese food, made by Japanese people, and it was delicious.

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When I would meet people from other parts of the United States, I was sometimes surprised that they either didn’t know what I was talking about when I spoke of teriyaki chicken, or that they would only eat it on rare occasions. Eventually, I came to realize that Seattle was a special place for teriyaki chicken. Indeed, in a Yelp search for “chicken teriyaki,” the medium-sized city of Seattle turns up 263 results, while a comparable search for Chicago turns up only 187, despite the fact that Chicago boasts over four times Seattle’s population. After thinking about it, this difference made sense to me considering the relatively large population of Japanese immigrants living in Seattle.

 

But is teriyaki chicken really a Japanese food? Over the many years I spent eating teriyaki in Seattle, I came to realize that the people cooking it for me were usually not Japanese, but in fact Korean or of another Asian ethnicity. Many of the teriyaki chicken places even have a side menu featuring kimchi, bibimba, and other Korean foods. I started to doubt my self-created narrative of Japanese influence leading to Seattle’s prolific teriyaki output.

 

Analyzing the word “teriyaki” itself, reveals that it must have some relation to Japan. The kanji character for “teri” loosely means shiny, while “yaki” means to grill or generally cook. These words combined do a fairly good job of describing what I eat in my hometown; too good to be a mere coincidence. Plus, even if the people making the food are usually Korean-Americans, why would the food have a Japanese name if it was not originally Japanese?

 

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Internet recipes, histories, and general blog posts on the topic are in agreement: the concept of teriyaki, if not teriyaki chicken, comes from Japan. Many allude to teriyaki chicken itself as a traditional food or even a staple and provide advice on how to make dishes similar to what can be found in America. Some take a more nuanced approach, conceding that versions of teriyaki found in America are not Japanese food, but that teriyaki is a traditional Japanese method of cooking that has been modified over the years involving marinating or glazing meat or fish in sauce before cooking it. Ingredients found in “traditional” or “authentic” teriyaki sauce recipes include soy sauce, mirin, (special Japanese cooking sake) sake, and sugar. Many recipes also include garlic and ginger, although some posters claim those ingredients to be non-traditional. A common theme among these recipes is their distinction between “real Japanese teriyak chicken” and “American teriyaki chicken” which they claim is sweetened artificially with products such as corn starch (it probably is).

While I am not in a position to completely debunk those who claim to be making “authentic” Japanese teriyaki chicken, my Japanese coworkers and I agree that it is likely not a traditional Japanese food, and is certainly not eaten by modern Japanese people. One coworker commented that the only place he had ever seen the word teriyaki used was at McDonalds, which serves a teriyaki chicken burger. There are no teriyaki chicken restaurants to be found on the streets of Tokyo, and I have yet to hear of anyone making the dish in their home. The concept of teriyaki may exist in Japan as a sauce used in preparing food, or even a marinade for “yakitori” chicken skewers, (although the word “teriyaki itself is seldom used in reference to this) but teriyaki chicken itself is for all intents and purposes an American food.

 

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Teriyaki chicken is certainly a delicious dish, and I look forward to indulging in a plate or two of it when I return to my hometown of Seattle. However, you should be skeptical the next time someone claims to be making an authentic Japanese version of it. If you are planning to travel to Japan, know that the food here will be amazing, but please do not expect there to be teriyaki chicken, especially that of the “authentic Japanese” variety.

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