A handful of high-impact ingredients, a quick sear over a charcoal grill, and a finishing savory-sweet sauce known as tare. It’s how the simple chicken meatball is transformed at back alleyway yakitori shops across Japan. Deliciously so!

Ground chicken has a too often deserved reputation as bland and mealy. But that’s hardly the case with tsukune, an ancient recipe typically served as a streetside snack along with chilled beer.

“It’s an iconic dish,” says John Sugimura, Japanese-trained chef and street food expert. “Tsukune tastes pure and pristine, never masked with a bunch of heavy stuff. If I were to put sugar in tare, my grandmother would come after me. That’s a strictly Western phenomenon.”

Part of what helps tsukune beat the bland chicken meatball odds is that it traditionally is made with ground thigh meat, not breasts, says Sugimura. This keeps the finished meatballs tender and moist, not to mention more flavorful.

So that was the obvious starting point for our tsukune. From there, we added the classic powerhouse flavorings—fragrant garlic, peppery scallions, bright and zesty ginger, and nutty sesame oil.

Vigorously mixing the aromatics and meat not only ensures thorough seasoning, it also helps distribute the fat evenly, which binds the meatballs together and contributes to tsukune’s characteristic springy texture.

Typically, the meatballs are shaped like cigars, threaded onto bamboo or metal skewers, then heated over an open flame until just cooked. But skewered meatballs—especially delicate ones like these—can be especially tricky to work with.

So we instead shaped the mixture into small, slightly flattened balls, then browned them in a nonstick skillet on the stovetop. While not traditional, this easy technique resulted in beautifully seared meatballs that charred evenly on all sides.

And rather than brushing the tsukune with tare—an umami-packed blend of soy sauce, bright sake and sweet mirin—using a skillet allowed us to finish the meatballs right in the sauce, suffusing moisture and richness throughout.

Served atop steamed rice or with a cabbage slaw alongside, these delicious meatballs turn notoriously underwhelming ground chicken into a meal that’s anything but.