Wonderful food, a warm welcome and a beautiful location.

Woodfired Talking with Tom & Nolly in Japan

In 2016 Holly travelled to Japan to stay with friends Nolly and Tom and explore some of the Japanese food culture, both ancient and modern. A truly remarkable journey with plans to return hopefully soon. Since then Nolly and Tom have moved into a new home – an unusually old (for Japan) house that used to belong to a wealthy merchant which has the added bonus of an original kamado oven. Here’s what they have to say about their new kitchen –

MFD – Can you tell us who you are, where you live and how long you have been there?

T&N – We are Nolly Kawamura and Tom Vincent. Three years ago we bought and renovated a big old merchant’s house in a little country town called Hino, in Shiga Prefecture in central Japan. The house was built in around 1780, and has been added to over the years with the most ‘modern’ parts completed about 100 years ago.
Woodfired Talking with Tom & Nolly in Japan

Tom & Nolly outside their house in Japan

MFD – What kind of woodfired oven do you have and is it your first?

T&N – The house still had its original woodfired ‘kamado’ oven, a traditional Japanese cooker. Yes it’s our first woodfired oven, and it’s loads of fun!
Woodfired Talking with Tom & Nolly in Japan

Each hole has its own fire

MFD – Tell us a bit more about your oven – how big is it; is it insulated; is it outside, undercover or inside; are you pleased with it; anything you would change with it; did you build it or buy it; is it traditional or modern?

T&N – Our kamado is about 100 years old, is 1 metre deep by 2 metres long, and the main body is 75 cm high. It is built of fire bricks and cement, covered in ceramic tiles, with a ceramic brick chimney. It has four separate fire holes, ranging from small to large – each with its own hole in the top to place a pan of some kind over the fire – you change the type of pan depending on what you want to cook. Four fire holes is big – this house was owned by a very rich merchant back in the day – most normal kamados have only two. The four fires are connected inside at the back to a horizontal flu, which leads to the chimney.
Woodfired Talking with Tom & Nolly in Japan

The kamado sits in the corner of our very big kitchen, so the chimney can be tucked in the corner and not get in the way. Originally the house would have had a kamado built in adobe style (of mud brick) – you can still see the area on our mud and cement kitchen floor where it would have stood.

Woodfired Talking with Tom & Nolly in Japan

Four separate fire holes

It was in a different place, and wouldn’t have had a chimney at all. The smoke would simply have gone up into the very high eaves and out though a smoke window at the very top of the roof – which is still there. In the winter when the wind is in the right direction it actually snows in our kitchen!

Woodfired Talking with Tom & Nolly in Japan

Japanese kamado oven

The chimney on ours would have been a modern way to try to avoid the smoke, but it actually gets very smoky still, depending on the weather. But the eaves are so high that it is not really a problem – and it’s all part of the fun – we can have BBQs right here in our kitchen! And the smoke also helps to treat the wooden beams of the house and keep the bugs from eating them. When you look up the rafters are black with centuries of smoke and soot.

Woodfired Talking with Tom & Nolly in Japan

Tom cooking at the kamado

MFD – How does your oven reflect the Japanese cooking culture?
T&N – Original working kamados are rare across Japan now. Certainly up until World War II, and probably considerably longer after that, all food would have been cooked on the kamado, with separate small charcoal braziers for grilling. We use a modern industrial gas cooker most of the time, but still use both the kamado and braziers too – although our braziers are new – all inside the house, right in the kitchen. The most important part of a Japanese meal is rice and a soup of some kind. Both would have been the main things prepared on the kamado – a different fire hole is used depending on how many people you are cooking for. Cooking rice is an art form here, and plain white Japanese rice cooked properly on a kamado is amazing – a whole different experience. In fact, the more expensive electric rice-cookers all try to imitate the way a kamado works. They get quite close, but there is nothing like the real thing!
Woodfired Talking with Tom & Nolly in Japan

Cooking over the brazier

MFD – I know it’s pretty old so any problems when you first got it? How did you bring it back to life?

T&N – It’s about 100 years old, but wasn’t in too bad a state really. The first thing we had to do was fix the chimney, which was fairly straightforward and that got it working enough to boil some water to test it, although it belched out smoke from holes all over the place. A lot of the little tiles had fallen off too, and most of the ironwork on the fire doors and around the holes where the pans sit needed fixing up and re-cementing. You can’t buy those parts, so I spent a few weekends fixing the tiles and refurbishing the old iron work, and now it works like a treat!
We needed to buy new pans, as the old cast iron ones had rusted too much. Thankfully you can still buy them, so I got two aluminium ones which are lighter and easier to manage than cast iron, for the smaller holes –  the bigger pans will feed an army, so they are decoration for now. (Actually the biggest pan is a traditionally a little altar to the fire god and only used on special occasions – we do that, too. A vase of sacred leaves and a little sake urn for the gods to have a drink. The god himself lives in a little wooden shrine up on the wall above the kamado. Our god is probably as old as the house. He’s very fierce looking, so we try to keep him happy!)
Woodfired Talking with Tom & Nolly in Japan

The home’s Fire God

MFD – What do you think are the challenges of cooking on wood where you live and do you manage to cook all year round?

T&N – There aren’t very many working kamado left in Japan now, although more and more people are interested in renovating them or building new ones, so there isn’t a huge amount of information on how to use them. It’s right in our kitchen, so we can cook on it all year round no problem.

MFD – What wood do you use and where does that come from – is it native to where you are?

T&N – It gets very cold here in the winter, so we put in a modern wood burning stove, too, so our winters are all wood-fired now. We bought logs by the ton at first to get us through the winter – from the local forests, but quite expensive – but now our neighbours know we use firewood they bring us cut down trees and branches. We don’t worry too much about what kind of wood we are using, but try to avoid things like red pine which burns too fast and hot. We use the same wood for the wood-burner and the kamado. The wood-burner takes most of it. You need a surprisingly small amount of wood for the kamado. A bundle of biggish kindling is enough to boil a big pot of rice. We have charcoal too, for the braziers.
Woodfired Talking with Tom & Nolly in Japan

Local wood from Tom & Nolly’s neighbours

MFD – What are the best things you’ve ever cooked in your woodfired oven – top 3? and why?

T&N – This being Japan, the first challenge was to boil plain white rice well. We have a friend who’s a rice merchant and travels the country teaching people how to cook rice on a wood fire, outdoors. He came down to play with our kamado, and taught me loads of tricks. Once you’ve mastered plain rice (“Mastered!?” – no – that would take a lifetime – “Got a bit better at”!) the next thing was “rice with bits”. I love to do mackerel rice boiled in dashi stock (the most popular Japanese stock, made with cured bonito tuna and kelp seaweed.) You grill some smallish whole mackerel first (sardines or other blue, oily fish would work, too) – either on a brazier, or in the grill – and place them on top of the raw, rinsed rice, cover with dashi stock and add some ginger and green onions, and then boil it all up together. When it is cooked, take the mackerel out, pick the fish meat off the bones with a fork (chopsticks here) and then put it back into the rice and mix it all up together. Very easy, and tastes heavenly! You could probably do it with a vegetable stock, or even a light chicken stock, too, if dashi is a problem to make.
Woodfired talking with Tom & Nolly in Japan

Japanese rice & fish

Nolly found a funny little ceramic pizza oven designed to go on a modern gas ring, so you can make pizzas in your kitchen. It fits perfectly on one of our fire holes, so I have lots of fun making kamado pizzas. The mouth for getting the pizzas in and out is too small though, so one day maybe I will get a potter to make me a better one.

MFD – Any disasters, or as we like to call them – learning opportunities – with your woodfired cooking !

T&N – No real disasters yet, but lots of smoky evenings when the weather is being unhelpful! Although the smoke does rise up out of the roof soon enough. The biggest challenge is, of course, getting the heat just right, which is a lot to do with controlling the air flow, and can be different every time depending on the weather. I can use the way the smoke rises to predict rain now – highs and lows make it behave quite differently. We have an old barometer on the wall too, which helps.
Woodfired Talking with Tom & Nolly in Japan

MFD -What are your plans for your next cooking adventures?

T&N – Cooking Japanese food on a kamado is loads of fun, but I want to start experimenting with other styles of cooking too. We’re planning a Kamado Curry night soon with a friend who travels around making curries for people. Experimenting with different kinds of pots and pans is another thing I want to play around with. Traditional farm kitchens in China use a similar woodfired cooker with a big wok to stir-fry, so that should be simple enough. As our kamado is not really an ‘oven’, how to do oven cooking on it is another challenge. Using a Dutch oven is one obvious answer – or maybe my new, improved kamado pizza oven, when I get that done one day?
MFD -Thankyou both so much for our virtual tour of your kitchen and your kamado. Looking forward to coming back again and cooking on it!
Woodfired Talking with Tom & Nolly in Japan

Holly’s 2016 trip round central Japan