The Japanese are not known for their smoking. In fact, ‘smokey’ is not what most people associate with the nation’s cuisine. To simplify, traditional japanese cooking is rooted in seafood and vegetables. Pork and beef are a delicacy in their own right because large and tough animal farms don’t fare well on the mostly mountainous island. Despite this obstacle, Japanese cuisine is revered for their grilled meats. They have been developing their distinct culinary techniques for centuries and rely one magnificent staple in their cooking — white charcoal.
To understand why white charcoal is admired, one must first understand how it is produced. Black charcoal is achieved by heating wood at a high temperature of around 400 to 700 degrees Celcius in an low-oxygenated environment. The lumpy pieces of wood are soft and retain their bark. White charcoal, otherwise known as shiro-zumi, is made by heating wood at a low temperature for a longer time and then raising the temperature to 1000 degrees Celsius. The intensely-hot lumps of wood are then smothered in a mixture of ash, sand and dirt to rapidly cool the charcoal. This results in the white color on the charcoals exterior. The extremely high temperature strips the charcoal of it’s bark, leaving a smooth and incredibly dense charcoal.
The bark and crud of black charcoal is what releases soot and potentially unpleasant odours over a smoked meat. The high temperature white charcoal is prepared at, incinerates the undesirable wood impurities, leaving pure carbonized wood. Shiro-zumi burns cleaner and more evenly than any other charcoal. It burns at a higher temperature and smoulders far a much longer time than black charcoal. Japanese charcoal is typically oak and of the white charcoals, Binchotan is the highest quality. It’s oak is a particular species called ubame oak, sourced from the Wakayama Prefecture, which is the area’s official tree.
Binchotan burns clean, consistently and easily outlasts other charcoals. The control over a smoke is why this charcoal is so sought after. Charcoal is a base, to allow other flavoursome fruitwoods or intense hardwoods to impart their wonderful smoke flavours over a meat. So while the Japanese aren’t known their smoking, they have contributed one of the most desired ingrediants for a long, arduous smoke at the pit.