Tuesday, November 18, 2014

No smoke, no smell!

Japanese people have used charcoal for millennia.  This may be why they skipped any bronze age and jumped right into iron!
Charcoal is made by partially burning wood in a low-oxygen environment.  This takes out most of the water and certain compounds that produce smoke.  Colliers are people who make charcoal.  There are several reasons to prefer charcoal to wood or coal.
Black charcoal -- kuro-zumi -- is heated at a relatively low temperature, then allowed to cool naturally before the heating chamber is breached and the charcoal extracted.  This charcoal burns very hot, hotter than wood, hot enough to smelt and forge iron.  It's soft, and it lights easily.  It's good for heating and general cooking, too.  There are special variants, like the kiku-zumi, that are made from a specific oak wood that produces a pretty pattern like a chrysanthemum when the finished charcoal is cut -- just right for a small brazier used for Cha-do, the classic Tea Ceremony.  Even today, colliers specialize in this lovely charcoal with a dedicated attention to detail.
White charcoal -- shiro-zume -- is heated at a low temperature until nearly done.  Then the temperature is cranked up until the wood is red hot.  At that point, the wood is pulled out and smothered with ash and sand to produce a smooth, hard charcoal that has a white coating from the ash, and is so hard it sounds metallic when tapped.  This charcoal burns a long time, and imparts a better flavor to grilled foods.  Binchotan charcoal, shown below, is prized by grill restaurants.
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