Soot & Embers: Binchotan by Sonelo & Co

Shiro Ogatan, Sonelo & Co

Elodie is the third generation of a family that produces charcoal, and a dedicated one at that! We were super impressed to learn that her family still cooks over traditional charcoal stoves today; there is no gas in her household and all hot water is boiled over a charcoal flame.

Now based in Melbourne, Elodie still has the dedication to light a charcoal fire to cook over each evening. She assures us that it is a relatively simple thing. She gets back after work, lights the fire, then takes a shower and starts dinner prep. By the time she is done (approximately 40 minutes later), the charcoal is at the right heat for cooking!

Elodie's family's factory is based in Malaysia, but started producing extruded white charcoal (binchotan) and specifically Shiro Ogatan (white charcoal) after they were approached by a Japanese company over 20 years ago. We begin using her charcoal at chotto after she gave us a sample.

The reality is, a lot of the Japanese charcoal in Melbourne today isn't from Japan but China (the kanji on the box reads 'Product of China' even though the import label says 'Product of Japan'. Look for the words 日本製 for Japanese binchotan). Elodie's charcoal stood out for us as it burnt longer and cleaner, and wasn't filled with additives or fillers.

Elodie's Shiro Ogatan is currently used at Nora, Supernormal Canteen and Longsong, and she's finally launched a 3kg box for the (non-restaurant) customer. We asked Elodie a few questions about the product:

Can you tell us a bit more about your Shiro Ogatan?

Our Shiro Ogatan is a pure product of 100% sustainably-sourced timber sawdust. Unlike common black charcoal, it:

  • burns cleanly with no smoke and odour
  • lasts up to 4 hours (depending on the grill type)
  • can be reused (simply extinguish by cutting off the air supply)
  • leaves less residue during the handling process
  • emits Far Infra-red Rays - an invisible spectrum in sunlight which the Japanese like for its health benefits; and
  • has a metallic timbre to it when tapped against each other (which black charcoal would not have)

As our Shiro Ogatan contains no additives or fillers, it doesn't crumble apart, which less compacted charcoal or charcoal with fillers tend to do.

Why is it called Shiro Ogatan if it is black in colour?

It is called Shiro Ogatan because of the cooling process, which renders the charcoal ash-white. When the charcoal cools, the ashes are cleaned away, reverting it to the black colour we know!

If no additives or fillers are used, how does it form its shape without falling apart?

To create Shiro Ogatan, 100% raw timber sawdust is sifted and densely extruded into timber briquettes, which are then heated to approximately 150ºC. At this temperature, the sawdust emits plant lignin, a natural binder. 

The briquettes then go through a three-day carbonising process, with a final charring phase where the temperature rises to 1200ºC in the kiln. The red-hot briquettes are then quickly removed and the oxygen supply rapidly cut off to enable the charcoal to cool swiftly. The rapid rise and fall in temperature during the manufacturing process is what produces a superior hard charcoal with a high carbon content.

How environmentally-friendly is the use of Shiro Ogatan?

It makes use of a byproduct (timber sawdust) at the start, and once it turns to ash, it can be repurposed! Shiro Ogatan ash is rich in potash and a good source of fertiliser. It can neutralise garden soil and compost heaps, and a little scattered sparingly does wonders for alkaline soil-loving plants such as tomatoes, stone fruits and most green veggies!

Traditionally, we've also used ash in my household as a natural dishwasher. We mix two tablespoons of ash with 100ml of water to create a dish liquid, and a thicker paste to scrub burnt pots, pans, BBQ grills and grates.

Sonelo & Co's Shiro Ogatan retails for $36 (3kg box) and can be purchased through Instagram @sonelo_co or by emailing Pick-up in Carlton only.

Elodie has kindly offered friends of chotto a 10% discount for purchases between now & 31 January 2018. Just mention us when you get in touch!

P.S. 1kg is plenty for a small konro / BBQ for two and 3kg is plenty for a medium-sized konro / BBQ (or 2-3 dinner parties)!