We had a Fort Worth Japanese Society luncheon recently celebrating Tanabata. Tanabata is traditionally celebrated on the seventh day of the seventh month.  Also known as the Star Festival,  Tanabata has its roots in a Chinese legend about the love between a young princess, Orihime, who was a weaver, and a handsome young cowherd named Kengyu (represented by the stars Vega and Altair). As a result of their great love for each other, the weaver neglected her work weaving cloth for the gods and the herdsman neglected his cattle.  In punishment, Orihime’s father, the emperor of the heavens, moved the star-lovers to opposite sides of the Milky Way and stated that they would only be allowed to meet once a year: on the seventh day of the seventh month. On this night a flock of heavenly magpies use their wings to form a bridge that the weaver can cross to join her lover. The magpies will only make the bridge if July 7 is a clear night; if it rains, the lovers must wait another year. One popular Tanabata custom is to write one’s wishes on a piece of paper, and hang that piece of paper on a specially erected bamboo tree, in the hope that the wishes become true.  Colorful Tanabata festivalsare held across Japan in early July and August. Among the biggest and most famous ones are the Tanabata Festivals of Sendai in August and Hiratsuka near Tokyoin July.

I coordinated the food which included takoyaki by the Japanese language teachers, Akiko and Mikako, cold zaru soba noodles by Harvey Yamagata,  my chicken yakitori, a classic Japanese festival food and some onigiri, traditional rice balls. 
The smell of yakitori reminds me of my recent trips to Tokyo, Japan where we walked by “yakitori alley” every day.  Businessmen in their expensive suits sat on milk crate chairs at tiny outdoor tables munching on freshly grilled yakitori.  The smell was irresistible.  I found the best yakitori recipe in my Hiroko Shimbo cookbook, The Japanese Kitchen, which comes very close to the authentic Japanese yakitori where the cook dips the skewered chicken into the tare (sauce) until the sauce tastes like chicken. I stood outside grilling the chicken under the covered overhang while it rained.  People arriving at the Japanese Society were excited to smell the festival food and couldn’t wait to taste it.

The onigiri was a good compliment to the flavorful chicken and other foods and it tickled me to see the young children eating one after another.
Yakitori or Chicken on Skewers
Adapted from The Japanese Kitchen, by Hiroko Shimbo
Yakitori is a dish of chicken cut into bite-sized pieces, threaded on skewers and cooked over a charcoal fire.  During the cooking, the chicken is either salted or basted with a sweet sauce.  Use the best chicken you can find—free range, organic, local for the best taste!
Sauce:  Tare
 8 chicken wings
¼ cup sake
1 1/3 c Mirin (sweet cooking wine)
3 T sugar
1 1/3 c soy sauce
 On a grill or in a broiler, cook the chicken wings until they are charred over about half their surfaces.
In medium pot, bring the sake and Mirin to a boil over high heat.  Reduce heat to medium and add the sugar and cook until the sugar is dissolved, stirring.  Add the soy sauce and the chicken wings, and bring mixture to a boil.  Cook over low heat for 30 minutes.  Strain sauce through a strainer lined with cheese cloth or a fine metal strainer will work fine.  Cool to room temperature.  Refrigerate and use within a month.  Reheat the tare b efore using, and once a week between uses.
Chicken thigh or breast with onions on skewers
 1 chicken thigh, boned, with or without skin
1 chicken breast, boned, with or without skin
1 bunch of scallions, or young leeks, white parts only
Soak 12 , 6 inch bamboo skewers at least 1 hour
Cut chicken into 1 X 1 ¼ inch pieces.
Cut onions into 1 ¼ inch lengths.  Thread two pieces chicken and three pieces of onion alternately on skewer.  If using skin, fold in the edges of skin and tuck between the chicken meat and onion to prevent sin from burning.
Cook the skewered chicken for 4 minutes, turning several times.  Remove from heat and brush with tare.  Return to heat 2 minutes, turning several times.  Remove from heat and baste with sauce again.  Return to heat and cook 2 more minutes.  Remove and baste with sauce before serving.
Take care not to burn the yakitori.  Use medium heat and cook for at least 4 minutes with no sauce.  As soon as you put the sauce on it watch for burning and reduce heat immediately and remove all the skewers until the grill cools a little.  Don’t overcrowd the grill or the skewers will not cook inside.  This dish is best for a small group and eaten as soon as it comes off the grill.
Make ahead instructions:  Since I had to make enough yakitori for 40 people and knew there was no large grill available at the FWJS I grilled the chicken (not on skewers), then soaked it in the yakitori sauce for an hour, drained the sauce, then chilled the chicken until the next morning.  I cut the cold chicken into pieces and threaded it on the soaked skewers along with the scallions at the FWJS building.  I had a small charcoal grill fired up and ready to go, grilled the skewers and basted them with more sauce.  Since they were fully cooked it was easy to get them hot in a short time and they were ready to serve.
At home, when it’s more relaxed, I like to sit on the patio next to the grill and cook the yakitori a few at a time and serve them as they cook. 
Onigiri (Japanese Rice Balls)
2 sheets of nori seaweed, cut into/2 inch wide strips
Fillings:  Some classic fillings are pickled plum (umeboshi), bonito flakes just moistened with soy sauce (okaka), bonito flakes mixed with pickled plum (umekaka), flaked cooked salted salmon (shake or shiozake), cooked salty cod roe (tarako), chopped up pickles (tsukemono), and tsukudani, various tidbits – bonito cubes, tiny clams, etc. – cooked and preserved in a strong soy-sugar-sauce.
The key to making good onigiri is to have freshly cooked, hot rice. You can’t make good onigiri with cold rice.
Wet your clean hands with cold water, and sprinkle them with salt. Take 1/4th of the rice and place on one hand. Make a dent in the middle of the rice with your other hand. Put in about 1 tsp or so worth of filling in the dent.
Working rapidly, wrap the rice around the filling, and form into a ball. To make the traditional triangular shape, cup your hand sharply to form each corner, and keep turning it until you are happy with the shape.  You can also use a plastic onigiri mold.
Wrap the rice ball with 1-2 strips of nori seaweed, or sprinkle with furikake (seaweed flakes) or sesames seeds.
Repeat for the rest of the rice.
To bring along on picnic, wrap in plastic film.  Some people prefer to carry the nori strips separately, and to wrap them around the onigiri when eating, to preserve the crisp texture of the seaweed.
Takoyaki–octopus balls made of savory pancake batter