Once again I did not have to travel very far for a new lesson in a fascinating food culture. In fact, I didn’t even have to leave work…
One of the perks about being a student, alumni, or employee at The French Culinary Institute (at The International Culinary Center) is that you get to attend intimate demonstrations in our amphitheater. There’s always some amazing chef, restaurateur, or food/beverage specialist from near or far showing off their latest creations or their favorite techniques in the name of education.
Last week, chef, cookbook author, and cultural liaison, Hiroko Shimbo brought three Japanese chefs from Aburiya Kin’nosuke restaurant (here in NYC) to demonstrate an ancient Japanese barbecue technique using the finest hand-crafted charcoal in Japan (and maybe the world).
Bincho-tan (white charcoal aka Bincho-zumi) is a 95% carbon charcoal of steel-like hardness that is hand made from the Ubamegashi tree (aka “Ubame oak”). Its use dates back to the Edo Period in Japan during the Genroku Era in Tanabe, Wakayama.
This charcoal burns for hours at 932 degrees Fahrenheit (500 Celsius)!
Chefs Jiro Iida and Sato from Aburiya Kin’nosuke demonstrated two styles of bincho-tan grilling, preparing food for over 40 observers, INSIDE the FCI’s amphitheater. When I originally heard they were going to do this demonstration, I was more than a little curious about how our ventilation and fire-suppression systems would handle such a feat – the smoke alarm in my apartment goes crazy every time I sear a single piece of meat of any kind!
I soon discovered what seems to be one of the most energy and space efficient cooking methods I’ve ever seen – AND 40 people could sit close without feeling even the slightest rise in temperature. This is something you typically only see with the most high-tech of cooking methods (such as immersion circulators), not something you expect from burning embers in a bucket of sand!
Using the proper charcoal is one crucial element of this method’s success – building the fire properly is the other. The most energy and space efficient technique is to arrange the white-hot coals in a large bin of wet sand in a tall conical shape referred to as tatezumi (the flat, more familiar style is called yokozumi). The coals emit infrared radiation in this no-moisture combustion process. The heat radiates up the coals toward the cone and circulates back down. The food is then arranged around the cone on sticks in the sand. The sand is used as a fulcrum to position the food at varying angles from the heat to control the intensity of the heat and to direct the heat’s flow. The food cooks quickly and evenly, and the geometrics of the sticks arranged in the sand allow for much more food to heated surface area. It also allows for the fat and juices from the meat to drip into the sand instead of onto the coals – voila, no smoke!
The final product has a crisp surface, moist interior, and natural flavors – no flavor is imparted from the wood or smoke (since there isn’t any!).
We tasted several dishes all cooked before our eyes:
- Teba – chicken wings
- Tsukune – seasoned ground chicken cooked on a wood paddle, served with tare glaze (sweetish soy and mirin, yakitori style glaze)
- Ayu – a very special river fish (only 1 year lifespan, must be caught wild, and are very seasonal), also known as sweetfish, that was salted then grilled and served with tade sauce (a vinegar sauce infused with the herb tade).
- And, pork ribs with a dark miso sauce
I learned so much about a highly prized bit of Japanese food culture, got to meet some truly passionate and skilled chefs, and taste some truly amazing food. Not bad for a day at work!
Photos by Jeremie Tomczak
(Hiroko’s book on Japanese cuisine is one of my all-time favorites: The Japanese Kitchen)