The first thing you learn to respect with Japanese-style grilling is the binchotan, a charcoal that produces virtually no flames and no smoke but generates the kind of hellish heat imagined in the pages of Milton or Dante.
Jennifer Nguyen, executive chef at Zentan in the Donovan House Hotel, remembers her first experience with the charcoal. It was at Morimoto in Philadelphia, where the kitchen had none of the equipment necessary for robatayaki (or just “robata”), the fireside cooking technique that dates back centuries in Japan. So the cooks jury-rigged a process to use the high-carbon binchotan, kilned Japanese oak that burns hotter than seasoned oak in your typical wood-burning oven.
“We would heat [the binchotan] over an open fire, then throw it into the hotel pan, hoping it would be able to contain the heat,” recalls Nguyen, who installed a robata grill at Zentan last summer. “Over time, you could see the hole just starting to grow in the hotel pan.”
You read right: The Japanese charcoal melted stainless steel, a scary thought as I was waiting for my robata grill from Thailand, which I bought for less than $100 on eBay. I was picturing the mess that this bargain-basement grill, made from the finest aluminum available at a mysterious overseas factory, would create in my back yard. I was conjuring images of my beagle trying to lap up pools of molten metal. A shiver went down my spine.
Fortunately (or not, depending on who’s footing the bill), the robata grill remained on a slow boat from Thailand as my deadline loomed. So I defaulted to Plan B: I had read about a fire pit once used at Aburiya Kinnosuke in Midtown Manhattan, where chef Jiro Iida stacked binchotan, each stick glowing like an infrared laser, on a bed of sand, safely away from flammable materials. The pit resembled an ancient irori sunken hearth. The chef would spear chicken thighs or whole fish on metal rods and position the skewers in the sand just inches from the charcoal, like storytellers around a campfire. Or doomed storytellers around a campfire.
The chef could control the process by placing the lanced proteins closer to or farther from the binchotan, rotating the skewers every few minutes to ensure all sides were cooked evenly. He could also tamp down the heat by sprinkling small amounts of water on the charcoal, or turn up the furnace by throwing salt on the slow-burning binchotan, knocking off the outer layer of ash and revealing its inner nuclear core.
I gathered the necessary items over the next few days: I bought a circular outdoor fire pit (about $80) and a 50-pound bag of all-purpose sand (about $6; avoid play-box sand, which is too fine for this purpose), both from hardware stores, then secured a 33-pound box of aramaru binchotan charcoal ($99 at Korin.com). Despite its steep price, the aramaru is cheaper than the classic white binchotan, which sells on Korin for $149 for a 20-pound bag.
To me, the difference between the two kinds of binchotan was not significant enough to justify the added cost: The aramaru burns for three to four hours (vs. four to five for white binchotan) and, according to Korin, generates temperatures between 1,652 and 1,832 degrees (the white stuff reaches temperatures nearing 2,200 degrees). Unless I was smelting for pig iron, I figured, I was probably good with the aramaru.
To give you an idea of how hot the charcoal burns, allow me again to quote Nguyen from Zentan: “You can feel the heat from the other side [of the kitchen]. I kid you not. When you’re standing on the other side, you can literally feel the heat. That’s why we’re all skinny back here.”
Lighting the binchotan proved more difficult than I’d been led to believe. The aramaru is supposed to ignite more easily than white binchotan, but it took me three tries to get my charcoal glowing. The technique that finally worked was to light a chimney full of Kingsford charcoal and throw the hot briquettes into a standard grill. I then placed 10 pieces of binchotan on top of the burning briquettes and waited about 30 minutes for the blackened sticks to burn red, like branding irons.
While waiting for the charcoal to ignite, I built another stack of binchotan, about 10 inches high, in the middle of the sand pit. Once the binchotan in the standard grill was ready, I used a pair of metal tongs to transfer the pieces, one by one, to the sand pit, where I leaned them upright around the stack of unlit binchotan. It looked like a wigwam that had caught on fire.
Once the inner layer of binchotan began to turn crimson, I was ready to cook.
I started with a chef Iida-inspired recipe: skin-on chicken thighs spritzed lightly with semisweet sake, sprinkled with coarse sea salt and pierced with a pair of skewers so the rods made an X through the middle of the meat. The skewering technique is designed to defy gravity, preventing the thighs from coming into contact with the sand.
I would love to report that the technique is foolproof. But grilling is a recreational activity, even when it involves Japanese charcoal that can bring steel to its knees. Beer often is involved, which means that carelessness can enter the process. Once — okay, maybe twice — as I was rotating skewers so that each side could feel the heat, a thigh may have slipped down and briefly interacted with the grains of sand. What’s more, some skewers (like the kind sold at hardware stores catering to suburban barbecuers who drive Smart cars, not Ford F-150s) are designed to allow meat removal from one end only. Like the end previously stuck deep in the sand.
So remember this: Should you buy such fancy skewers, wipe the sandy end clean before removing your freshly grilled morsels. One other suggestion: Wear gloves while touching the skewers; everything within a few inches of the binchotan eventually will become too hot to handle.
How was the chicken after about 40 minutes around the old campfire? The skin was blistered and slightly blackened; all of the fat had been rendered, leaving a crisp and salty tuile of chicken skin, perfection like I have rarely tasted. The meat was moist as well, a wisp of binchotan perfume clinging to it. The aroma was not exactly a smokiness, at least not the two-fisted kind you might be familiar with. It was more like a woodland scent, something dark and deep.
“For me, it’s all about the wood,” Zentan’s Nguyen had told me, and I finally understood. “It’s the binchotan that makes [robata-grilled food] special and makes it unique and gives it its unique flavor.”
My lone problem, as you might have guessed, was a certain unwelcome grittiness, a gift from the sand pit designed to contain that blistering heat. For advice, I turned to my original source of inspiration: Aburiya Kinnosuke in New York. Unfortunately, both chef Iida and the robata grill are gone. But general manager Hiroyuki Futawatari is still there, and he remembers how the cooks used to deal with the issue of potentially gritty meats: They’d place lemon or lime halves at the base of each skewer so the fish or chicken couldn’t slide down and touch sand.
“They give off a nice aroma,” Futawatari says of the citrus, “and they give a little kick.”
And here’s more good news: After three-plus hours of grilling, I still have a deep box of binchotan left over, plus a few half-burned specimens that I saved from the first trial run. (Yes, you can reuse binchotan several times by submerging the hot coals in cold water and drying them for another day.) That’s a box of soon-to-be-searing-heat just waiting to transform meats, fish and vegetables into something singularly delicious for the summer.