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Sunday, May 8, 2005

It's time to get out there and grrrrrrrill!

Staff writer

News photo
Go for it! Feast al fresco with friends -- and don't let the smoke get in your eyes.

Years ago, at a friend's house in Kobe, an intense argument broke out between the Americans and Australians present. It turned into quite a searing row, and for a while it threatened to inflame tempers and disrupt the otherwise festive occasion.

It wasn't sports or politics over which battle lines were drawn, but something far more important: Namely, what constitutes properly grilled food.

The Americans, led by a proud grill-jockey from Oklahoma, passionately promoted their way of doing things -- only to be rebuffed at every turn by the Aussies. In the end, both sides ended up grilling their own hamburgers, glaring at each other over a no man's land of hot coals.

News photo
Hair stylists from a beauty salon in Tokyo's Jiyugaoka district let their hair down and enjoy barbecuing together on a day off during this year's Golden Week by the Tama River.

The Japanese guests chose, as Tony Blair might say, a "third way," preferring to use a separate yakiniku grill -- and their own sauces.

Australia, America and Japan thankfully avoided coming to blows that day, but the lesson all present learned was that grilling is a very serious business.

Given its long history, this is not surprising. As Steven "King of Barbecue" Raichlen, the American author of 1998's "The Barbecue Bible" notes in his seminal work, there is archaeological evidence that man was using fire to cook food as long ago as 125,000 B.C. Back then, of course, gathering around the BBQ was no mere prehistoric knees-up -- it was a means of survival. Later, though, civilizations as diverse as the ancient Greeks and Romans, the Muslim world and age-old China -- as well as, of course, Japan's for at least the last 1,500 years -- turned cooking, smoking and grilling food into an art form.

Obviously what and how we grill is different depending on where we are from. Here in Japan, though, many foreigners often wonder where they can enjoy the typical summertime barbecue that is part of their culture -- while many Japanese wonder how to throw such a party for foreign friends or guests. However, thanks to deregulation, deflation and the spread of the Internet, it's now easier, and cheaper, to enjoy a BBQ party in Japan than ever before.

But before we fire up the grill, let's get the terminology right.

The words "barbecuing" and "grilling" are often used interchangably, especially in America. Yet in fact, they are two different ways of cooking.

Barbecuing means cooking the food slowly and not directly over the flames. It can take a very long time, up to 24 hours for some heavy-duty Kansas City ribs or North Carolina-style pulled pork. Grilling, by contrast, means placing food directly over flames or hot coals. For the purposes of this article, we'll concentrate on the more practicable variant -- grilling.

Premium flesh shrivels

The secret of great grilling is the ingredients.

If you've got money to burn, you might be tempted to splash out on some premium flesh, but don't spend a month's salary buying top-quality Kobe, Omi or Matsuzaka beef and then toss it on the grill. The extremely high fat content means these meat cuts will shrivel up quickly. Better to get something with a low-to-medium fat content to grace your griddle.

As for that -- the grill itself -- small ones in Japan work great for tidbits of food like yakiniku, but it's wise to invest in a bigger one for steaks, burgers, lamb and fish fillets. A number of chain stores throughout Japan, including Costco, Tokyu Hands, Loft and, occasionally, Daiei and Jusco, stock American-style gas and charcoal grills at reasonable prices. If possible, invest in one that allows you to adjust the height of the grill over the coals or heat, so that you can cook different foods at different temperatures.

One of the hot debates among grill fanatics is whether to use gas, charcoal or wood. Gas grills burn evenly, there is no start-up time and cleaning them up afterward is a breeze. Those favoring charcoal counter, rightly, that charcoal gives whatever you cook a richer, deeper taste than is the case with gas. And then there are the wood advocates. Cooking meat and vegetables over chunks of hickory, mesquite, apple or oak carmalizes the juices, which mix with the smoke to lock in the natural flavors with those of whichever wood is being used as fuel. While gas and charcoal are readily found in Japan, hardwood chunks (and you should never use softwoods such as pine or cedar, because they blacken the food and give it a resin taste) are a different story. Untreated hardwood -- the only kind suitable for grilling -- is extremely expensive.

But wait! For those who want the ease of use and low cost of gas or charcoal -- but the taste of wood-fired food -- there's a compromise. Tokyu Hands and Loft, among others, now carry hardwood chips for smoking. After soaking them in water, all you have to do is toss them onto the charcoal while the food is cooking, and watch the smoke rise and permeate whatever you're cooking.

Shopping for regular grill fare like meat and vegetables is easily done in department or specialty stores, huge warehouse stores like Costco and Carrefour, or through specialist Internet sites like The Meat Guy and Nissin. For just a bit extra, virtually all stores in Japan will deliver your order via takkyubin if you don't want to haul lots of shopping bags home yourself.

Beef and chicken remain the perennial grill favorites, but lamb is becoming more popular. For many years, Japanese had an aversion to sheep meat on the grounds of its smell, which they didn't like, and lovers of grilled lamb were hard-pressed to find it in their local markets, even in major cities. Thankfully (as a chap from the North Country once said), the times are a-changin'. According to Jason Morgan, founder and owner of a Web site called The Meat Guy, more Japanese every day are now enjoying lamb, especially from Australia and New Zealand. However, if it's exotic meats or game that light your fire, you're in for a tricky and expensive hunt.

Salivating for slabs

Pork is a slightly different story. If you're salivating for slabs of ribs for Chicago- or Kansas City-style ribs, or lashings of loin for North Carolina-style pulled pork, Costco can often fit the bill directly, while The Meat Guy can help you order it over the Internet. Then again, if it's the famously tender and juicy Kagoshima pork that most tickles your taste buds -- or the gourmets' delight with the unappetizing name of Tokyo X -- major department stores in Kanto and Kansai occasionally have both, though again the Internet can be relied on for regular supplies.

And what about sauces? Most Japanese supermarkets have shelves groaning with a zillion varieties of yakiniku sauce, but, alas, little in the way of American, Asian or Middle Eastern-style garnishes. And the Caribbean food boom, which swept America and Europe a few years ago, never made it here.

However, specialized imported-food chain stores like Seijo Ishii and Jupiter foods have added things like Hunt's BBQ sauce, which comes in five flavors, as well as a good selection of Thai, Vietnamese, Malaysian and Indian spices and sauces. In Tokyo, the National Azabu Supermarket is a long-time reliable source for sauces of various sorts that are hard to find elsewhere, while in Kansai, Kobe Grocer in Kobe and The Deli in Osaka's Namba City district have American and Asian sauces rarely seen in department stores or chain stores. Meijiya, with branches nationwide, is also a good source.

If you can plan a few weeks in advance, consider ordering through the Foreign Buyer's Club, which has a huge selection of American-style sauces and is based in Kobe, but can ship anywhere in Japan. Outside the major cities, it can be tough to find non-Japanese sauces, so ordering through the Internet is recommended. Those in need of halal foods should refer to the accompanying Internet shopping guide.

All the above sources will also be able to provide the usual extras such as cheeses and condiments for your BBQ party. But if you're like me and always in search of something unusual, you can really wow your friends by serving them smoked Hokkaido rainbow trout as an appetizer. In the town of Biei in central Hokkaido is a farm and restaurant called The Hobbit, as in "The Lord of the Rings." It specializes in hand-cured hams and sausages, as well as smoked rainbow trout, which has a far richer taste than smoked salmon. You can order through their Web site and they deliver anywhere in Japan within five days.

Carbonated corn oil

Finally, the drinks, the importance of which is often overlooked when throwing a BBQ party.

Nothing is more discouraging than showing up at the appointed time, taking a hungry look at the smorgasbord of mouth-watering appetizers and items on the grill, and then being handed a can of lager that tastes like carbonated corn oil or a glass of Chateaux d'Antifreeze. This writer strongly recommends time and energy be spent on securing a good local or international microbeer or some decent wine. And, while we're on the subject, nothing ruins a party or an appetite more than seeing somebody serve a bottle of good red wine ice cold. Serve at room temperature or very slightly chilled, please.

Microbeers can be hard to find outside their area of production. Department-store basements are worth trying for some of the nation's better brewed beverages, but Japan's most reliable source for overseas microbeers is back up in Hokkaido. Sapporo resident Phred Kaufman's Ezo Beer is well-known among beer lovers, and he stocks a fine selection of excellent American and British microbeers that he can deliver anywhere in Japan quickly and cheaply.

Once you've got your supplies, either at the store itself or through the Internet, it's off to the park or time to set up your grill at home (if you've got the space).

Rules and regulations governing grilling at local parks are different depending on where you live, so it's best to call the park in advance and find out what facilities they have, what the rental prices are, if any, and what you're allowed to bring. Some parks now have grill sites, and on busy weekends, you'll need a reservation in advance.

Whatever your venue, though, a BBQ party with grilled foods is about having fun. Whether your preference is for sirloin steak, grilled lamb, salmon or just grilled vegetables with a bit of ponzu or tare sauce on the side, there is now enough BBQ-style food available in Japan to cater to all but the most exotic of tastes. Much of it is cheap enough to allow you to keep firing up your grill all year around, enabling you and your friends to create a virtual United Nations of a party. And, if you consume enough microbeer, you may even end up agreeing that the Aussies have a few good ideas about grilling.

For other stories in this package, please click the following links:

Where to go for a lark in the park By ERIC JOHNSTON and SETSUKO KAMIYA Grilling he who would be Barbecue King By ERIC JOHNSTON

How to look hot or not By ERIC JOHNSTON

Goodies just a click away By ERIC JOHNSTON

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