Barbecue Bible!

Our textbook
Season 2

Show 209: Vegging Out

Man cannot survive by meat alone! In this episode the professor cooks a few of his favorite vegetarian dishes for the grill, including heart-friendly options like Tofu on Stilts and Robatataki (a mixed vegetable grill) that both come from the Japanese's rich yakitori grilling tradition. And even committed carnivores would have a hard time passing up delectably crisp Grilled Artichokes, basted with garlic-parsley butter during a long, slow roast on the grill. As Steven likes to say, "If you had trouble eating your vegetables as a kid, it's probably because they weren't grilled."

On the menu (page numbers indicate page in the Barbecue! Bible, unless otherwise noted):

  • Japanese Mixed Vegetable Grill (page 375)
  • Tofu on Stilts (page 408, recipe follows)
  • Tandoori Peppers (page 415)
  • Grilled Artichokes (page 379)
  • Grilled Corn with Shandon Beni Butter Sauce (page 381)

The Japanese Grill

To most people, Japanese food means sushi, sashimi, sukiyaki, or soba noodles. You may be surprised to learn that Japan is also a nation of barbecue buffs with a venerable traditional of grilling.

Given the meticulousness of Japanese cooking, the precise, almost painterly plate presentations, it's easy to loose sight of the joyful aspect of Japanese cuisine. Yet joyful and festive are the operative words at Inakaya (my favorite yakitori restaurant), not to mention at virtually every place I dined in Japan. You might expect such refined food to be eaten in sacerdotal silence. But Japanese epicures drink hard and party heartily--especially when partaking of their favorite foods.

This is especially true at the yakitori joints one finds in or under virtually all of the train stations in Tokyo. The yakitori parlor is a uniquely Japanese institution: part pub, part barbecue joint, to which Japanese salary men flock after work for a snack, a cigarette, a couple of beers, and some ear-splitting conversation before embarking on the long commute home by train. The yakitori parlor isn't big (some have only a half dozen seats) and it certainly isn't fancy. One of the most famous yakitori parlors in Tokyo, for example--Tonton--doesn't even have four walls. But to come to Japan without visiting a yakitori parlor would be a little like going to Agra and missing the Taj Majal.

Yakitori takes its name from the Japanese words for "charcoal" (yaki) and "chicken" (tori). Unlike upscale grill restaurants, like Inakaya, yakitori parlors still use charcoal grills--often a trough-like brazier mounted on legs in front of the restaurant. The traditional charcoal is bincho, made from the slow burning holm oak in the Wakayama Prefecture near Kyoto.

In the West (particularly in North and South America), the quality of a barbecue is measured in part by how many notches it forces you loosen your belt. You'd certainly never call it health food. How different is Japanese grilling! Meats are used almost as a condiment. Sauces tend to be based on broths, not oils, eggs, or other fats. The portions are moderate, even modest, with most items being served in bite-size pieces. Small is beautiful in Japan. The food speaks to you in whispers, not shouts.

"TOFU ON STILTS" (DENGAKU) printer-ready version

Dengaku is a popular dish at the tea houses that line the lovely Philosophers Walk in Kyoto. The dish takes its curious name from the Japanese word for "stilt." The stilts in question are two slender bamboo skewers that are used to hold the piece of tofu over the coals for grilling.

Makes 8 pieces, enough to serve 4

  • 2 pounds extra firm tofu
for the miso glaze:
  • 1/2 cup white miso
  • 2 tablespoons mirin
  • 2 tablespoons sake
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 tablespoon mayonnaise
  • 1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds
  • 16 bamboo skewers
1. Rinse the tofu and press for 1 hour. (To press the tofu, place it on a gently sloping cutting board in the sink. Place a heavy plate on top of it and let stand for 1 hour. The weight of the plate will press out the excess liquid and firm up the tofu.)

2. Prepare the miso glaze. Combine the miso, mirin, sake, sugar, and mayonnaise in the top of a double boiler and whisk until smooth. Cook the sauce over the double boiler until thick and creamy, about 3 minutes.

3. Cut each block of tofu through the short side to obtain 2 broad thin rectangles. Cut each rectangle in half widthwise. Stick two skewers through the narrow end of each piece of tofu. Preheat the grill to high.

4. Grill the tofu on each side until lightly browned, turning once, 3 to 4 minutes per side, brushing with miso glaze. Sprinkle with sesame seeds and serve at once.

For more information about Japanese grilling and a couple more recipes I picked up on my most recent trip to Japan, see issue the April 2004 issue of my newsletter Up in Smoke.

© 2006 Steven Raichlen | site design Benjamin Wilchfort