Tsukune (Grilled Japanese Chicken Meatballs)

published Jun 29, 2023
Tsukune Recipe

A popular street food found in Japan, tsukune are chicken meatballs that are threaded on skewers, grilled, and brushed with a sweet and salty syrup-like sauce.

Serves3 to 4

Makes6 skewers

Prep40 minutes

Cook25 minutes to 30 minutes

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Close up of Tsukune, grilled Japanese meatballs on skewers, plated.
Credit: Sahara Bohoskey

Yakitori, which you can get from street vendors in Japan, is one of my favorite summer meals. The scent of charcoal and tare (yakitori sauce) perfumes the air and guides you to the stalls where you can buy fresh, piping-hot skewers of chicken thighs, liver, and this classic, tsukune (grilled meatballs). 

While you will usually find tsukune cooking over an open flame and grill, and this recipe calls for the same, it can also be baked in the oven (which comes in handy if you’re cooking for a crowd). 

What Are Tsukune?

Tsukune are chicken meatballs seasoned with salt, white pepper, garlic, ginger, and scallions. Some recipes may do without the ginger or add in citrusy shiso leaves. 

What Is Tare?

Tare is a salty-sweet sauce made with soy sauce, sake, mirin, and brown sugar. Once cooked, it becomes syrup-like in texture, and is the perfect accompaniment to grilled meats. Try it with grilled chicken, pork, salmon, and shrimp. You can even drizzle it over rice bowls — you won’t regret it. 

If You’re Making Tsukune, a Few Tips

  • Damp hands are key to shaping tsukune. This will help you shape the meatballs properly. If you have a small cookie scoop, use it here to help with portioning. 
  • Oil your grill grates. Grilling meatballs can be a tricky thing to do. Make sure the grill grates are clean, oiled, and hot to prevent sticking 
  • Spritz your tsukune with cooking spray. A spritz of cooking spray on the tops of the meatballs, where they will be touching the heat first, will really help prevent any sticking and keep your tsukune intact. 
  • Leave your tsukune alone on the grill. Once the tsukune are on the grill, leave them alone. Let a char develop as the meatballs cook through. If you need help rotating them, do it slowly and with a spatula or tongs or both to gently move them. Once you’ve hit them front and back with the grill, they should move around quite easily. 
  • A meat thermometer is your friend. Once the temperature hits 165ºF, pull your tsukune off the grill; otherwise you run the risk of tsukune that are on the drier side.

Tsukune Recipe

A popular street food found in Japan, tsukune are chicken meatballs that are threaded on skewers, grilled, and brushed with a sweet and salty syrup-like sauce.

Prep time 40 minutes

Cook time 25 minutes to 30 minutes

Makes 6 skewers

Serves 3 to 4

Nutritional Info


For the tare:

  • 1 1/4 cups

    regular or low-sodium soy sauce

  • 3/4 cup


  • 1/2 cup


  • 2 tablespoons

    packed light or dark brown sugar

For the skewers:

  • 6

    wooden skewers

  • 2 to 4

    medium scallions

  • 3 large cloves


  • 1 (1/2-inch) piece


  • 1 pound

    ground chicken, preferably dark meat or a combination of dark and white meat

  • 1

    large egg

  • 1/3 cup

    panko breadcrumbs

  • 1/2 teaspoon

    toasted sesame oil

  • 1/4 teaspoon

    kosher salt

  • 1/4 teaspoon

    ground white pepper

  • Cooking spray

  • Vegetable oil, for oiling the grill


  1. If using wooden skewers, place 6 in water and let soak while you prepare the tsukune.

  2. Place 1 1/4 cups soy sauce, 3/4 cup mirin, 1/2 cup sake, and 2 tablespoons packed brown sugar in a small saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, stirring constantly, until the sugar is dissolved. Continue to simmer, stirring frequently, until reduced by half (about 1 1/4 cups), syrupy, and thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, 10 to 12 minutes.

  3. Line a rimmed baking sheet or plate with aluminum foil.

  4. Prepare the following, adding each to the same large bowl as it is completed: Finely chop 2 to 4 medium scallions until you have 1/3 cup. Peel and finely grate 3 large garlic cloves (about 2 teaspoons). Peel and finely grate a 1/2-inch piece of ginger until you have 3/4 teaspoon.

  5. Add 1 pound ground chicken, 1 large egg, 1/3 cup panko breadcrumbs, 1/2 teaspoon toasted sesame oil, 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt, and 1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper. Vigorously stir with a wooden spoon or flexible spatula until light, airy and paste-like in texture, 2 to 3 minutes.

  6. With damp hands, shape and roll the mixture into 18 (1-inch) meatballs. Place on the foil, arranging them in rows of 3. Insert a skewer through each row of meatballs, skewering through the center of each and leaving a little space between each one.

  7. Refrigerate for 15 minutes to let the meatballs firm up and the breadcrumbs rehydrate. Meanwhile, heat an outdoor grill to medium-high, direct heat (about 425ºF). If you’re using a grill pan on the stovetop, wait until the meatballs are chilled before heating to medium-high heat.

  8. Scrape the grill grates clean if needed. Oil the grill grate with a paper towel dipped in vegetable oil. Lightly coat the tops of the meatballs with cooking spray. Place the skewers with the meatballs oil-side down on the grill grates. Cover and grill undisturbed until browned on the bottom and they easily release off the grill grates, 3 to 4 minutes. Meanwhile, discard the foil.

  9. Flip the skewers and continue grilling, turning them every few minutes, until well browned all over, cooked through, and an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center of a meatball registers at least 165ºF, 6 to 7 minutes more.

  10. Brush the meatballs with a thin layer of the sauce (save the remaining sauce for grilled fish, yakitori, or more tsukune). Grill uncovered for 15 to 20 seconds more. Return to the baking sheet or plate, brush the other sides of the meatballs with more sauce, and let rest for 3 minutes before serving.

Recipe Notes

Make ahead: The sauce can be made up to 1 month ahead and refrigerated in an airtight container.

Storage: Leftovers can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 4 days.