For most of my life, I thought that robata was the female version of Mr. Roboto. I assumed you just gave her a nice little “domo arigato” and that was the end of that. I was wrong.
Robata is a long-standing Japanese grilling tradition. It means “hearth” or “fireside” (depending on how you choose to interpret Google Translate) and originated with ancient fishermen in northern Japan who took boxes of hot coals with them on their boats to heat their food as they gathered their marine gold. The modern robata is a type of grill modeled after those coal boxes, and still serves as a good way to fill your belly.
Japan has other grilling styles, too. You may be familiar with teppanyaki, the tabletop method made popular by Benihana. While onion volcanos and shrimp tossed into pockets can be amusing, you just don't get the same depth of flavor cooking on a flattop as you do grilling over hot coals. Since I'm clueless about robata, I went to a place where I knew they could fill me in: Robata Bar in Santa Monica, CA. An extension of the much-loved Sushi Roku/Katana franchise, Robata Bar specializes in robata yakitori, i.e. cooking skewers (usually chicken) over coals. After an extensive meal of grilled chicken wings, baby octopus and the best damn Wagyu beef I've had in a while, it was time to learn the secrets of the robata.
Behold, Reader-san, the Ten Commandments of Robata!
1. Thou shalt only use bincho-tan.
Bincho-tan (a.k.a. bincho) is the official charcoal of robata. It's made by burning oak branches, then rapidly cooling them. There are no chemicals used and it burns at an incredibly high heat. While you probably can't find it at your local hardware store, check out Japanese markets or buy some online.
2. Thou shalt allow your bincho to burn to 1000 degrees.
The goal of robata is to get your grill blazingly hot. At Robata Bar, they accelerate the process by starting the bincho-tan on a gas grill, then moving it to the robata. If you're going to try to replicate the robata experience at home, using a gas grill boost is a great way to save some time.
3. Thou shalt adjust bincho to maintain even heat.
Bincho isn't just a set-it-and-forget-it proposition. You need to move it around to achieve the proper temperature. Just like the charcoal you're used to using, bincho can burn out. Be vigilant about your bincho and your bincho will be vigilant about giving you delicious grilled meat. Arigato, bincho.
4. Thou shalt not crowd your bincho.
On Game of Thrones, Samwell Tarly (that fat guy on the Night's Watch) learned that a fire needs room to breath. Same thing with bincho. The more air you allow in, the hotter it will burn. Bincho is fuel for meat, air is fuel for bincho. No air means no cooked meat and that's worse than a lifetime of celibacy while guarding The Wall.
5. Thou shalt dip chicken into the marinade exactly three times during the cooking process.
Since flames aren't a part of robata grilling, you don't have to worry about burning your marinade. With chicken (and some fish), you want to create a nice glaze by dipping your protein into a marinade (Robata Bar uses a soy-based marinade) before you put it on the robata. Then dip again halfway through cooking and once more when it's ready and you'll have an intensely flavorful little bird on a stick.
6. Thou shalt keep thou's skewers roughly two to three inches above the grill.
Too close and you don't allow the hot air to fully envelop your meat; too far and you lose all that valuable heat you've built up. Keep it at two to three inches for best results.
7. Thou shalt only use thin, uniform pieces of meat and vegetables.
Let's face it – robata grilling isn't for big ol' steaks. You want thin pieces – roughly an inch to an inch and a half – that will cook quickly. Make sure your skewers are full of ingredients that are the same thickness so they cook evenly. The fun of robata is piling up skewer after skewer and the thicker the piece, the longer you'll have to wait for your next little morsel.
8. Thou shalt not marinate beef.
Any good steakhouse will tell you the same thing: beef tastes great on its own. Just a little salt and pepper is all you need.
9. Thou shalt create different heat zones.
As mentioned before, the more airspace you have around your bincho-tan, the hotter it gets. Everything doesn't need to be blasted on super hot heat, though. Create different heat zones so you can sear meats on high and move them to a cooler section to finish cooking. On a robata, you do this by crowding (or not crowding) the bincho and opening and closing air vents to allow/restrict airflow. Open vents = hotter. Closed vents = cooler.
10. Thou shalt never leave the robata during cooking.
Since the meat you're working with is so thin, there's no time to go grab a Sapporo. The art of robata requires constant monitoring and rearranging so you take advantage of those multiple heat zones. Robata masters are always keeping a watchful eye on their grill because controlling the heat means controlling the flavor and they're kind of control freaks to begin with.
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