In Tokyo, there is a narrow alley famous for its yakitori stalls. Omoide Yokocho, or Memory Lane, is jammed with stall after stall of smoking troughs full of charcoal and grilled meats. Crowded around each shop are people chugging beer or sipping chu-high, a highball made with delicious shochu, and devouring skewers of chicken thighs, livers and skin, or even shiitake, negi and bacon. The smells were so tempting; but try as I might, I couldn’t manage to eat a thing because I had just gorged myself on a huge bowl of ramen. Luckily, a trip back to Tokyo to get a similar yakitori experience wasn’t necessary, I just got myself a konro barbecue.
The Japanese word “konro” indicates any heat source used for cooking. A konro barbecue is a special kind of Japanese grill that is generally long and narrow enough that the yakitori skewers can rest on the walls of the box and not fall into the coals below. There are also wider versions to accommodate larger pieces of meat, like a ribeye steak. Some people like to use a wire mesh grate to set their food on while it cooks, but purists want the food that much closer to the coals and forgo the mesh. The drawback is that you also forgo any morsels that fall into the quiet hell of the charcoal pit. The grill doesn’t impart grill marks on your food like a North American barbecue, it just serves as a safety net. If your food is on skewers, it’s entirely your decision.
The heat for that glowing and crazy-hot pit is created by using special binchotan charcoal. Binchotan is a style of lump charcoal from Japan that is made of Ubame oak, which grows in Kishu near Wakayma. The wood is burned in a 1000°F kiln with very little access to oxygen which results in a higher concentration of carbon.
Here’s a video taken in 1930 of Japanese charcoal burners:
While North American lump charcoal has a carbon content of about 75%, binchotan has a carbon content of between 93 and 96%. This means there’s no room for impurities that could negatively taint the flavour of your food. You get a pure source of heat with minimal smoke, aside from the flavourful puffs created by drippings that hit the charcoal. The intense heat produced by binchotan quickly gives the exterior of the meat a delicious crust and leaves the flavourful morsels extremely juicy. Chefs live and breathe by the Maillard Reaction, the science responsible for making toast taste better than bread and a grilled sausage taste better than a boiled one.
That high carbon content also means that binchotan can be a challenge to start. Ideally, you want a charcoal chimney and a big wad of newspaper to get it going. A small konro barbecue is the perfect camping companion because you can load a chimney with binchotan and park it on top of your campfire to get things going. I’ve used blowtorches, but find it a lengthy process of idly pointing a flame at a lump of coal. Luckily, this still leaves your other hand free to hold a beer.
Despite binchotan giving off few impurities, on thing it DOES give off is carbon monoxide. For this reason we recommend only using your konro barbecue outdoors. Some restaurants use them inside, but they have heavy-duty professional ventilation hoods, which I’m sure you don’t have in your home. Even if you do, make sure that the area where you are cooking is well ventilated and has good airflow.
Pro tip: Once you’re done cooking, binchotan is unique in that you can quench it in water and still use it afterward! Or, if you want to be more traditional, you can snuff it out in a cast iron pot with a lid. If you do want to suffocate it, make sure you use something thick and durable. Like cast iron or ceramic. I’ve heard of bincho melting THROUGH thin stainless steel pans!
So, you have your konro barbecue fired up with some binchotan, now you need some food. Chicken is the traditional yakitori ingredient. Makes sense, since yakitori means grilled chicken. At the height of yakitori’s popularity in Japan you could purchase skewers of different chicken breeds and varieties. Each offered differences in taste and texture. I like to grill chicken thighs, either cut up small, two to a skewer, or three to a skewer if whole. Yakitori can include any part of the chicken including heart, neck, liver, tail, (a.k.a. pope’s nose as my grandma used to call it), and the most delicious: chicken skin. Some have opinions between tare (a soy heavy hybrid marinade/barbecue sauce) or just salt on their chicken. I like to alternate back and forth between the two. Other traditional options are shiitake mushrooms, shishito peppers, and pork belly. One Knifewear customer does kafta kabobs and shrimp on his, proving konro barbecue isn’t just for Japanese food!
Pro tip: I prefer using square bamboo skewers, since I’m an anti-mesh-grill guy. The shape keeps them from rolling around on the edges of your konro barbecue, making them easier control. Round skewers roll so that the heavier side is on the bottom. The way around this is to use two skewers so there’s no more rolling! This is not as much of a concern for those that use the mesh grill.
The easiest way to become a konro barbecue cooking expert is to read the book The Japanese Grill by Tadashi Ono and Harris Salat. This husband and wife pair have written some of our favourite books on Japanese home cooking and The Japanese Grill is indeed up there. It’s an essential manual for anyone who picks up a konro barbecue.
If you have any further questions or if you’d like to get your own konro barbecue, feel free to contact your local Knifewear shop. For those without one, email email@example.com or call toll free at 1-800-669-6168.