Newsletter Up In Smoke

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Japanese Grilling

Spring is in the air and grills are coming out of the garage (in the unlikely event you actually stop grilling during the winter). That means it’s time to crank up the BBQ USA bus and hit the road. You’ll find my latest tour schedule at Steven’s Event Schedule on the home page. Please come out and say hello if you have a chance.

If you can’t make one of the events, then try to catch the new season of BBQ University, coming to a public television station near you soon. All of the information about when and where is in the event schedule link above.

So forgive the brevity of this month’s newsletter, because I have to get packed and on the road again! I hope to see you on my travels.


The big news this month is that my book has just been translated into Japanese! So my family and I boarded a plane for Tokyo, to bring the gospel of American grilling to Japanese television. It was an amazing week filled with new friends, new flavors, new challenges, and above all the realization that everyone–East and West–loves barbecue.

Of course, we did some major barbecue eating on our own and had some pretty remarkable grilling at yakitori parlors and robatayaki restaurants in Japan. Yakitori literally means “grilled chicken.” Yakitori bars tend to be small, casual, boisterous establishments where you can get every part of the bird grilled–wing, breast, leg, skin, gizzard, hearts, even cartilage. The seasonings are pretty simple: coarse sea salt or a basting of a sweet salty soy and mirin based barbecue sauce called tare. You wash it down with plenty of sake or beer and everyone has a grand time.

Robatayaki restaurants specialize in all manner of grilled fare–from asparagus to king crab to kobe beef to whole fish to ginko nuts. Ro means “hearth” and yaki means “grilled.” These restaurants are very theatrical–the cooks and waiters shout out every order and detail of the cooking. Two great addresses for robatayaki or Inakaya in Tokyo and Agatha in Kyoto. Below you’ll find two of my favorite Japanese barbecue recipes.


The Japanese are very particular about their charcoal. The most prized is a hard oak charcoal called bincho. I bought some at a shop in the Ginza area and actually paid $3 a chunk. The stuff burns very hot and very clean–it’s the Rolls Royce of charcoal. We’re looking into finding a source in the U.S., so stay tuned.

Speaking of charcoal, web site visitors John and Mary Hook inquired about lump charcoal versus briquettes–and in particular, does one burn faster than the other. It’s true: natural lump charcoal burns faster than briquettes–how much faster depends on many factors, including the brand, manufacturing process, and wood from which it’s made.

Lighting time in a chimney starter will be about 15 to 20 minutes, but this may be quicker if the lump charcoal is light and dry. Once spread out, you’ll get about 20 to 30 minutes of grilling time–as opposed to the 40 to 60 minutes with charcoal briquettes. By the way, the beauty of lump charcoal is that you can add fresh charcoal to a fire as needed without the acrid smoke associated with briquettes.

So where do you buy lump charcoal? Try your local grill shop or natural foods supermarket. Two good brands are Royal Oak and Natures Own.


A lot of you have been asking about wood and smoking. Wood comes in two forms for smoking: chips and chunks. For a light wood flavor, simply toss unsoaked chips or chunks on the coals (when you’re direct grilling). For a more pronounced smoke flavor, soak the chips or chunks in water (or a mixture of water and beer) for an hour, then drain them before adding them to the fire. The soaking causes the wood to smolder rather than burst into flames, so it generates more smoke.

If you’re cooking on gas, you can get the same effect with a smoking pouch. Just soak your chips as described above, create a pouch of heavy-duty aluminum foil, fold it over the chips and form a pouch. Poke a few holes in the top to let the smoke escape, and place under the grate over one of the burners. Preheat on high until you see the smoke rising, then lower the temperature (if you need to) and proceed with the recipe.

However, let me say, that even the worst charcoal grill generally does a better job of smoking than the best gas grill. If you’re at all serious about smoking–even if you’re a diehard gas griller–invest in an inexpensive charcoal grill for smoking.

By varying the wood, you can subtly vary the flavor of the food. Like the various spices, certain woods are better suited to some meats than others. Heavy woods, such as mesquite and pecan, have a stronger smoke flavor than fruit woods, like apple and cherry. The best all-purpose woods for smoking are hickory, oak, cherry, and apple.

Never attempt to smoke with softwoods, which put out an unpleasant sooty smoke, or pressure-treated lumber, which contains noxious chemicals.

What are your favorite wood/food pairings? Visit the BBQ Board and tell us what you think.


While we were in Japan, we had some terrific grilled vegetables. Here’s how they make grilled asparagus at the restaurant Inakaya.

Sesame Grilled Asparagus

This recipe contains only 4 ingredients (two of them are salt and pepper), but you’ll be amazed how they’re utterly transformed by the searing heat of the grill. This may well be the best asparagus I’ve ever tasted.

Serves 4.

1 pound asparagus (the stalks shouldn’t be too thin)
1 to 2 tablespoon Asian (dark) sesame oil
coarse salt (kosher or sea) and freshly ground black pepper

Special equipment: large toothpicks or slender bamboo skewers

Set up your grill for direct grilling and preheat to high.

Snap the fibrous ends off the asparagus stalks and discard. Lay 3 or 4 stalks side by side to form a sort of raft and skewer crosswise in 2 places with toothpicks or bamboo skewers. This makes it easier to turn the grilled asparagus and it looks cool as all get out. Lightly brush each raft on both sides with sesame oil and season generously with salt and pepper.

Place the asparagus rafts on the grate and grill until nicely browned on both sides, 2 to 4 minutes per side. Serve at once–reminding each eater to remove the skewer.

Chicken and Scallion Yakitori

A classic at the thousands of yakitori parlors found under and near train stations in Tokyo, Note: like most of the world’s barbecue buffs, the Japanese prefer grilled dark meat chicken to white.

Serves 6 to 8 as an appetizer; 4 as a main course

1-1/2 pounds boneless skinless chicken thighs or breasts
1 bunch scallions, trimmed

For the sauce:

1 cup soy sauce (one good brand Kikomann)
3/4 cup sugar
6 tablespoons mirin (Japanese sweet rice wine)
3 tablespoons sake (Japanese rice wine
2 strips lemon zest (1/2 by 2 inches )

Special equipment: slender bamboo skewers (each about 6 inches long); a piece of aluminum foil folded several times into a rectangle the size of a business letter envelope to make a foil shield.

Cut the chicken across the grain into 1-1/2 by 1/2 by 1/2 inch strips. Cut the scallions into 1-1/2 inch pieces. Make tiny kebabs, alternating chicken and scallion pieces. Refrigerate until grilling.

Prepare the yakitori sauce. Place the soy sauce, sugar, mirin, sake, and lemon zest in a saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Simmer the sauce until thick and syrupy, 5 to 8 minutes, stirring often to prevent scorching. Strain the sauce into a bowl and cool to room temperature. The recipe can be prepared ahead to this stage.

3. Set up your grill or hibachi for direct grilling and preheat to high. Brush and oil the grill grate. Place the foil shield on the grill at the front. Arrange the yakitori on the grill so that the exposed parts of the skewers are on the foil to keep them from burning. Grill the yakitori until the chicken is cooked, 3 to 4 minutes per side, basting with the sauce after a minute or so on each side. Alternatively, have the sauce in a shallow dish. When partially cooked, dip the yakitoris in the sauce and continue grilling. The sauce should cook to a shiny glaze. Serve at once.


“This weekend we’re planning on having a few couples over and I have to cook for 6 to 8 people,” writes Michael Schaefer. “If I make burgers, dogs, and chicken pieces, I know I’m in safe territory. My question is, how would you suggest I prepare if I decide to go with ribs? I can only fit so many racks of ribs on my grill. Could I bake the ribs in the oven the night before and then just finish them on the grill with a little hickory smoke? Or grill them 2 racks at a time and keep them warm in the oven? Or is it simply not practical to make ribs for 8 with my setup?”

It’s eminently possible, Mike, and you don’t need to resort to baking the ribs in the oven. Simply invest in a rib rack–a nifty device that enables you to cook 4 racks of ribs in a vertical position, taking up about the same amount of space that one rack would take lying down. You can cook the ribs ahead. Simply direct grill them to reheat–brushed with a little barbecue sauce if you desire.

“Your books and web site have helped me tremendously,” writes Joe Knittel. “I have wrecked a lot of food in the past. Anyway here is my question: what is a non-reactive bowl or saucepan and why should I use one?”

A non-reactive bowl or saucepan is one made from stainless steel, anodized aluminum, glass, or porcelain. These materials remain inert when exposed to acids, like lemon juice, wine, or yogurt. In contrast to these materials, cast iron and aluminum tend to react when exposed to acidic foods and should be avoided for many recipes.

David has a question about the chicken under a brick in How to Grill and on the Barbecue University TV show. “After you flip the chicken, you put the brick back on. Doesn’t this risk cross-contamination since the brick had been resting on raw chicken and then placed on the cooked side of the chicken?”

The brick gets hot enough (thanks to contact with cooked side) to kill any bacteria. (I worried about that myself at first.) I’ve made the recipe hundreds of times and never had a problem.

Yours in righteous grilling,
Steven Raichlen, Grill Master and Editor-in-Chief
Nancy Loseke, Features Editor

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