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The mystery of the fish grill and the trials of baking

by Makiko Itoh

Special To The Japan Times

A typical modern Japanese kitchen is equipped with all sorts of appliances for actually cooking the food, as in applying heat to it.

While most of these items will be fairly familiar, there are some differences from typical North American or European kitchens that may baffle and confound newcomers to Japan, unless you are lucky enough to move into a place that has been specially fitted out for expatriate residents.

One of the cooking appliances that most Europeans and North Americans take for granted, and that is not a standard part of most Japanese kitchens, is a built-in oven.

Conventional oven cooking, which takes time (especially if you include the time needed to heat up the oven itself) and energy, has been a luxury rather than a necessity.

A typical cooking range in Japan has no oven underneath. It may just consist of the burners, usually ranging from one to three of them, rather than the four seen in many American kitchens, for example. If there is an additional feature on a Japanese cooking range, it’s almost invariably a small pull-out grill called the “fish grill.”

The fish grill can be used like a miniature version of the grill function on your oven back home, although it is typically just about big enough to hold, well, a couple of small fish.

It’s not, however, just limited to grilling fish — you can use it to toast bread, grill vegetables, small pieces of poultry or meat and more. It does take some practice to use the grill though, since the heat source is quite close to the food. Cleanup is a bit of a hassle, too. My recommendation is to simply resign yourself to cleaning the metal grill and the pan underneath every time you use it, much as you would clean your pans after each use.

As for the burners themselves, while low-end cooking ranges are often limited to basic on/off and flame-level (or temperature-level) controls, mid- and high-range cookers have some added (and often confusing) buttons and switches. One feature of gas cooking ranges in particular is an automatic system that turns off the heat source if the range detects that the pot has boiled dry, has been on the heat for a long time, or has spilled over. This is a very useful safety feature in earthquake-prone Japan, but it can also get in your way if you’re simmering a stew for a long time, for instance. There are override functions for these safety features, but be sure to use them with care, and never leave the range unattended.

Incidentally, despite the increase of induction heat (IH) cooking ranges in recent years, over 80 percent of Japanese households still use gas cookers as of 2015, with around 90 percent of such users in urban areas such as Tokyo, according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications.

Other features of some cooking ranges include temperature controls, which can be handy for deep-frying, and a “rice cooking” option that will automatically lower and raise the heat as needed for properly cooked rice.

But back to the oven question: Since your kitchen may not have one, if you really are desperate to get your bake on, the only thing for it is to buy a countertop version. Since Japanese kitchens are usually quite compact, it’s best to get a combination microwave-convection oven. But if you are not into serious baking, you may opt for a simple toaster-oven instead, which may be the most common cooking appliance in a Japanese kitchen besides the cooking range, microwave oven and rice cooker. This not only handles your morning toast, but if it has temperature controls, you can also do a lot of fairly serious baking and other oven-type cooking in it, albeit on a small scale.

This is the fourth in a six-part series exploring traditional and modern equipment connected to Japanese kitchens.