A Quick Study of Japanese Food: What is Japanese Robata?

Plate of Japanese style grilled meats on skewers

Sushi is popular among just about everyone in America.

Slivers of freshly-caught, delicious raw fish paired with accent flavors like juicy slices of cucumber and smooth, fatty avocado, accented with cream cheese and wrapped in seaweed and rice – our mouths are watering just thinking about it!

But Japanese cuisine – as you surely know – is about much more than just sushi. From ramen, to dumplings, soups, curries, and so much more, sushi is only the beginning. If you take the time to dive into Japanese cuisine, you’ll find so much more to love.

And, in this article, we’re going to shine the spotlight on an under-discussed Japanese cooking technique and type of cuisine – Japanese robata. This style of Japanese slow-grilling is exceptionally delicious, and has been trending in modern Japanese restaurants for a number of years. It provides a great insight into traditional Japanese culture – and it tastes great, to boot.

So put down that sushi roll, and forget about sashimi and nigiri for a second. Yes, yes, sushi is great – but if you take a moment to learn about Japanese robata, we think you may just change your order next time you head to a Japanese restaurant.

What is Japanese Robata?

Japanese robata is a shortened form of the term “robatayaki”. This directly translates to “fireside cooking” – and the technique is usually simply referred to as “robata.” This type of cooking is a long-lasting Japanese tradition, which can be compared to a traditional Western-style barbecue.

Just like Western barbecue, robata used hot charcoal to cook food for a long period of time. Everything from fish, to various meats like pork, chicken and beef and vegetables can be cooked robata style.

How Japanese Robata Originated

Much like sake, robata is traditional and highly respected in Japan, and it has been a cooking tradition for centuries. According to folk tales and legend, the backstory behind Japanese robata starts – like so many Japanese food traditions – with fishermen.

A number of fishermen in Hokkaido, Japan, one of the best places for fishing in Japan, found themselves in a relatable position. After spending a long day out on the sea, they were hungry – and they wanted to be able to cook their catch as soon as the got back to the shore.

And they found themselves in a dilemma – they would usually be running out of light, and have no way to make a fire. So, like so many other cooking traditions, robata was an improvisation – a method that allowed them to address this problem.

At the beginning of their day, these fishermen would light some charcoal. Then, they would take it with them in a special, fire-resistant stone or wood box, which would accompany them throughout their trip.

Then, after they made they would set this box on top of an oar, and place the fish directly inside the box, allowing it to cook slowly throughout the return trip. Then, once they arrived back to the land, they could simply pick up the box, extract the fish, and eat it.

This tradition lives on today – at some traditional restaurants, robata is still served on a wooden oar, in memory of the fishermen who were responsible for this method of slow cooking.

Why Is Japanese Robata So Delicious? What Makes It Different?

There are a few ways in which robata is different from a traditional, Western-style charcoal barbecue – so let’s explain these now.

To begin with, traditional robata is not prepared with any kind of typical charcoal. A special kind of charcoal is used to cook the food, to bring out the proper flavor and ensure it’s cooked correctly. This is called white oak “bincho”, or Japanese White Charcoal. Robata charcoal has several unique properties – it burns almost completely cleanly, it produces very little smoke or flame, and it burns at such an insane temperature that it can melt most traditional stainless steel charcoal grills (think Webster).

This charcoal has to be made properly by experienced artisans to be accepted for use with Japanese robata. This very high-carbon charcoal is extremely pure and totally odorless, unlike traditional lump charcoal and briquettes. It’s produced from oak trees, by firing wood in a sealed kiln at a relatively low temperature for up to 4 days, with a low oxygen level in the kiln. Then, over a much shorter period of time, it’s exposed to high temperatures of up to 950 degrees Centigrade.

Then, it’s removed from the kiln, and smothered with sand and ash, giving it its characteristic white appearance. It’s highly dense, with a carbon content reaching up to 95%. In contrast, most lump charcoal has a carbon content of 70% or less. Want to know how to recognize this kind of charcoal? Tap two sticks of it together, and listen for a light metallic sound.

Lighter fluid is also not used when cooking Japanese robata, as it can destroy some of the more subtle flavors of the food. To heat up this charcoal, a rack is placed over a cooktop. Then, the charcoal is wrapped in foil and placed on top, and allows to heat. Once the charcoal has reached the proper temperature, it can then be used to cook the food. Usually, it is transferred to a hibachi or konro grill, and spread out. Then, it’s allowed to rest and burn for about 10 minutes, so that the heat can be evened out, and cooking can begin.

During the cooking process, the juices from the food drip onto the surface of the charcoal, forming smoke that rises and surrounds the food – adding a unique flavor.

Precision is highly valued when cooking Japanese robata, as the heat of the charcoal can’t be changed. The chef has to cook each different food for the proper period of time – and at the correct height – in order for the best results.

The high, intense heat and pure burn of the charcoal help create a food with a crunchy outside that preserves the juicy, delicious inside, and a unique, pure flavor.

What Foods Can Be Cooked With Japanese Robata?

Traditional sushi is limited to just seafood – though some types of nigiri can be made with beef, pork, or other ingredients. This means your food selection is quite limited, at least when it comes to traditional sushi.

In contrast, Japanese robata can be used to cook almost any type of food. Chefs usually cook meat like chicken, beef and pork using robata – and, of course, fish is a very traditional meal. However, other options include potatoes and sweet potatoes, and just about any kind of vegetable you can imagine.

Can I Cook Robata At Home?

Yes! You will need a few things, including a konro grill, available online for less than $40, as well as a charcoal chimney, and white oak Bincho charcoal. You could also use an outdoor sand pit, if you don’t want to invest in a grill just for this method of Japanese barbecue.

Bincho charcoal can be purchased online, and while it’s not cheap, it’s absolutely essential if you want to cook truly authentic Japanese robata at home. Best of all, you can actually reuse your charcoal. After you’re done cooking, you can simply dip it into a bucket of cold water, and then let it dry. Once it’s dry, you can put it back into the container – and potentially reuse each stick several times.

Just fire up your charcoal using the method discussed above, pop it into your grill, and start cooking. It may take you a bit of time to get used to how hot the grill is – due to the high carbon content of the coals, it can burn at more than 1,000 degrees Centigrade. Don’t be afraid to use some smaller pieces of food, or do a “test run” to get used to the cooking process.

Looking for more tips on how to cook robata at home, or recipe ideas? Here are a few helpful links which you can use.

Not up for the challenge? Don’t worry. You’re sure to be able to find a Japanese restaurant near you which can serve up some tender, delicious robata – and you won’t have to lift a finger.

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