A little over a year ago, when moving into the first Hamazu house, we bought a small, refillable gas tank to hook to the kitchen. By buying our own tank, we wouldn’t have to pay any monthly fees to the gas company, and we could get it refilled from time to time as needed.
As it turns out, in the past 14 months or so, we have yet to use the gas even a single time. We never even connected the burner to the gas line to start with. Now that we have moved to the new place in Hamazu, the tank resides in the storage shed, the valve yet to be opened.
Nor have we used the IH electric cooktop I originally bought to use when visiting Ojika for a short time over two years ago.
The single source of heat for cooking over that time has been good, old-fashioned, hand-made, self-made, charcoal! I posted well over a year ago about the charcoal making process, which is incredibly interesting. This Spring we made an additional two batches, enough to last us two years at the rate we’ve been using it.
In place of a gas or electric burner, we use a shichirin 七輪 to cook on and control the heat from the charcoal.
The shichirin is a simple device generally made from heat-resistant diatomaceous earth, with a grill surface for the charcoal about 2/3 of the way down, and a small sliding opening below that to control airflow and thereby intensity of heat.
Starting the coals takes a little time and planning, getting heat from charcoal is not as fast and easy as pressing a button or twisting a dial on a stovetop. The main inconvenience with this setup is that if someone stops by and you want to heat up some water for tea, for example, it’s going to take a few minutes to get things going.
In reality though, it doesn’t take that much longer than gas or electric, and it’s much more satisfying when it is ready. Convenience and speed do not always equal better!
In order to start the charcoal relatively quickly and easily, we use a valuable leftover from the heating of the wood-fired bathtub. We collect the hot coals from the fire once they have burned to the point that they are no longer flaming or smoking, and place them in an air-tight clay pot to extinguish and cool. These keshizumi 消し炭 re-light extremely easily but burn out quickly and so we use them for starting the actual charcoal.
Basically all that is required is to light a little newspaper with keshizumi set on top, fan them a bit and they will start to glow red with heat very quickly. We then place the charcoal on top of that and it catches on from there.
Cooking with charcoal indoors is not as dirty or smelly a proposition as it may seem. The charcoal we make burns clean, hot, and smokeless. Over time a bit of soot is visible around the kitchen exhaust fan, but it’s a very small amount for the amount of cooking we do with the shichirin.
The amount of heat is adjusted by the small window at the bottom of the shichirin and by the amount of charcoal you have inside. After cooking with it a while, you get the hang of controlling the heat without much trouble.
One aspect of charcoal/shichirin cooking that needs to be considered is how to efficiently use that precious heat! After all, we made this charcoal with our own hard work, time and sweat, and don’t want to waste it.
It’s important to plan out what to cook when and have things ready before the coals are lit. As I said before, you can’t just turn it on and off on a whim, so it’s important to be somewhat prepared! Thinking about the order things are cooked in, and even what to prepare for the night’s, or even the next day’s meals is important to keep things efficient. Utilizing tools like pressure cookers and thermos cookers to reduce the amount of time on the burners is also very helpful.
Over the past year, living and cooking with this “slow”, hand-made fire has been an incredible learning experience for me. My interest in exploring the way fire has traditionally been used in daily life in Japan, and in finding ways to incorporate it into a natural life once again, continues to grow. I look forward to sharing those experiences.