A small grill used to cook Japanese barbecue is generally called a konro. Small charcoal-burning grills specifically made of clay are called shichirin. At our house, we prepare yakitori and other Japanese barbecue dishes on our Fire Sense yakitori grill, which is a shichirin. It fits on the table and four people can easily and leisurely cook a meal together.
A konro looks like a large terra cotta flower pot or window box. There is a grate inside that goes under the charcoal and a grill grate over the top where you cook your food. The hot grill should never be placed directly on the table because you wouldn’t want to damage the table and you don’t want anyone to get burned. Our grill has a wire holder with legs that keep it off the table. You can also try putting it on a butchers block or or other surface for insulation. A konro also has a vent at the bottom that allows you to adjust the airflow and thus the temperature.
An authentic charcoal-burning Japanese barbecue grill is meant to be heated with a natural wood charcoal called binchotan. This charcoal burns very clean and very hot. The clay walls of the shichirin absorb the heat, making it a very efficient cooking appliance and an excellent grill. Binchotan charcoal is hard to find and comparatively expensive, and should be ordered online from a reputable distributor to ensure its authenticity. However, you only need a few pieces to get the grill hot enough to cook, and they burn for a long time.
Japanese barbecue enthusiasts swear by binchotan as the only way to create authentic Japanese flavor, but we’re more lax when it comes to grilling. We use all-natural hardwood lump charcoal in our yakitori grill because it’s cheaper and easier to find, though it’s not as long-lasting and does produce smoke. Of course, you should only ever use a charcoal-burning grill outside.
If you’re using binchotan or even hardwood charcoal, know that it takes a lot more to get the fire started than just tossing in a lit match. And conventional wisdom says to avoid using regular lighter fluid to start a fire in a shichirin because it will alter the flavor of what you’re cooking. We cheat and use a little denatured alcohol to get the flames going: it's basically moonshine made unpalatable so it can be sold at a low cost in hardware stores. (You could also use moonshine...)
To light your binchotan: lay the pieces on the konro grill grate. Place the grate over a lit gas burner on low on your stove. The charcoal will slowly heat up and catch fire. Carefully carry it to your grill and put it inside.
Once the lit charcoal has been safely placed in the shichirin, you can increase the heat by using a blow dryer or a little handheld fan to push more air through the vent at the bottom. This is a great technique for getting a good sear on your meat.
It took us about an hour to get our yakitori grill lit and hot the first time, so plan accordingly. Also keep in mind that you shouldn’t get the grill wet or it might fall apart. This is normal because it’s made of diatomaceous earth, which means that it’s basically unfired clay. Just give yourself some time after the meal for the charcoal to cool down, but make sure the grill is cleaned and packed away safely before it rains.
Or check our full recipe index for even more ideas!
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Asian Food Grocer has a great selection of essential ingredients and many hard-to-find items.
Cilantro Cook Shop has a great selection of quality raclette and fondue sets.
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