The Importance of History
The art of Japanese grilling comes from centuries ago when the fishermen of northern Japan went out to sea. The fishermen would take hot coal and bento boxes.
The bento boxes would be packed with rice, fruit and meat(mostly fish). The boxes would keep all of the ingredients separated until it was time to cook.
The Binchotan Charcoal
Binchotan charcoal reaches back to around 12,000 BC. It is one the most popular charcoals developed and in great demand in Asia. When the drippings from the meat drop onto the charcoal and the steam arises from it the resultant smoke envelops the meat and instead of causing a bitter flavor as it does in the United States.
What to say about this amazing charcoal, most American grills cannot handle this type of charcoal. The binchotan is made from the umabe white oak. The wood is processed using a dry distillation process that literally forces all fluids out of the wood.
The remaining charcoal will reach temperatures well above 1000 C. In Japanese grilling the charcoal is the most important part of the grilling process. The Japanese consumer wants to know where the binchotan is from so that they will know what the quality of the charcoal is.
Binchotan is used in virtually every style of Japanese grilling. There are a couple of features that are outstanding. One is that even though it burns so hot, with proper attention you can get some of the most flavorful food.
The other thing is after you have finished using the binchotan you can put it in cold water and let it dry out for one to two days and reuse the unburned portion.
The emperor Meiji became a part of a campaign to re-introduce beef into the Japanese diet and was seen eating beef publicly. This happened after the prohibition on eating beef was lifted.
It is one of the more refined styles of grilling. It allows a group of people to come together while elevating the flavor of the food by using simple preparation to form a more intimate setting for the participants.
This style of grilling calls for simplicity. Here are some of the finer points for Yakitori Grilling:
- simple to prepare
- not fast food but is fast
- can grill bite-sized pieces of fish
- goes with a variety of sauces
- needs good charcoal.
Teppanyaki Style Grilling/Cooking
Teppanyaki Style grilling is a more modern form of cooking. It became popular after World War II. It commonly uses an iron plate and is also called a flattop. This style of cooking became famous by the restaurant chain Benihama.
The teppanyaki style cooking chefs undergo years of vigorous training for the use of knives, fork and spatula. They also learn the art form associated with each of these as well as which foods need to be pared together.
While they do their cooking on the flattop, they use a minimal amount of seasonings during the cooking process. They prepare numerous sauces that are designed to go with that particular meal.
The menu varies from restaurant to restaurant but is basically the same in order of presentation. You start with an appetizer course followed by soup/salad followed by seafood course followed by meat(typically beef) followed by dessert.
Teppanyaki is the Japanese version of an American Steak House. They feature their domestic beef such as the way beef, Matsutaka, Omi, and Kobe beef all of these have magnificent marbling, low fat, and exquisite flavor.
Robata-style grilling is said the have its origins from the Japanese Tea Ceremony. Most of the older homes in Japan have a pit that has been dug in the center of the living space. The pit would have in it binchotan charcoal and suspended over the pit would be a chain where you hooked your tea kettle to heat. Now the chain also would play host to a variety of other pots that were used in the preparation of the meal.
After you have learned how to cook with binchotan, you know that the only flame you will ever see on the binchotan will be from the grease that cooked out of the meat.
This will only be there for a second as the cloud of smoke envelops the meat and gives it that woody flavor associated with binchotan.
The only way to adjust the temperature while using binchotan is to adjust the distance from the heat. This is totally different than using a stove where you can set the temperature and leave it. There is a saying in Japan “Never leave the binchotan”.
Hibachi is the Western name for shichirin or konro which translated means fire bowl. The hibachi was originally used for indoor heating and warming water. It was originally carved from cypress and inlaid with clay. It transformed from that to ornamental ceramic or porcelain.
It has since undergone another change to being made out of steel and cast iron which is prevalent today.
Shichirin or konro are the preferred Japanese terms to this type of cooking and cooking utensil. The best are made from diatomaceous earth. They were best known for how well they retained heat and how evenly it was distributed throughout the vessel.
Most of these vessels whether they are called hibachi or shichirin have a long metal rod running the length of the firebox instead of grates.
The unused ends of the skewers are allowed to rest on the sides of the box over the charcoal to allow the food to cook evenly until it is time to be consumed.
Hibachis are regaining their popularity from the 1980s mainly because most households have 2 to 4 people living there. Also, space is becoming smaller in the apartments and duplexes that are being built today.