On Sunday, my son and I took on the challenge of making my father-in-law’s grilled soyu* chicken recipe. It’s not a complicated dish, but I’ve never made it as well as Papa K, which is the honorific bestowed upon my wife’s Japanese father. I am still learning how to make it “right,” and my son was eager to further his pit master apprenticeship by giving it a shot. I have fond memories of enjoying the perfectly sweet and salty umami chicken pieces Papa cooked over a kamado grill, which was his barbecue weapon of choice when he lived on Maui. We would sit on Papa and Nana’s lanai with plates full of chicken and rice, watching the sun sink into the Pacific, feeling the warm breeze kiss our cheeks, and relishing every bite. When Papa and Nana moved to the mainland, the kamado stayed on the island. I was disappointed, as I thought there was a chance it could become an addition to my fleet of grilling rigs. Apparently, he thought paying to ship a 200-pound barbecue oven was exorbitant, and I was too cheap to cover the transportation costs. Despite his current use of a gas grill and the lack of Hawaiian sunsets as a backdrop, which can certainly enhance the flavor of many mediocre dishes, Papa still makes better soyu chicken than I do. There’s always more to learn.
The recipe starts twenty-four hours in advance of cooking with a simple teriyaki-style marinade for the chicken parts. Papa K’s instructions forego conventional units of measurements for the ingredients. Instead of tablespoons or cups, the respective amounts are apportioned in “parts,” such as “One part sugar, two parts soy sauce.” This unconventional set of instructions left my son baffled. To be fair, as a student of math and physics, he understood the concept of ratios, but without a base unit, he was adrift. Based on my experience, I advised he assume one part equaled one cup. Because we were making a large batch of chicken breasts, his inclination was to go big on the marinade, and he thought a part should be at least two, perhaps even four, cups. As a compromise, I suggested starting with a cup per part, and if that proved insufficient to drown the chicken breasts, we could scale up with an additional batch of marinade. Despite the large amount of chicken, the modest amount of marinade was adequate. While my degree is in literature, I took some pride in teaching my son a little something about the practical application of Archimedes’ displacement principle. My physics-minded boy learned a handy lesson about about marinades: start small and add as needed, lest you find yourself marinading chicken in a bathtub so as to accommodate all the brine.
We used a clear plastic four-sided container to soak the chicken. Because the breasts had a certain amount of natural buoyancy, some of the pieces were floating on the surface of the marinade. My son asked how we could keep the chicken submerged to ensure an even brining. I suggested we do what I have always done: occasionally stir the pot to ensure everybody spends an equal amount of time under the waves. Being inherently lazy, not unlike his father, he felt this was far too much work and, instead, proposed putting something into the receptacle to hold the chicken below the surface. Once I got over being annoyed that he was too lazy even to stir chicken every few hours, I had a thought. Specifically, I thought he might be on to a good idea. What if we put something on top of the chicken, something like a zip-topped plastic bag full of water? My son did the engineering, and our solution for the breaching breast problem worked perfectly. The weight of the bag was sufficient to hold the breasts beneath the surface and assure their drowning. We both learned something. I learned to be open to possibilities of a new way to marinade chicken, and we both learned about the conservation of energy. By eliminating the need to stir the chicken occasionally, we were able to spend more time on the couch binging Amazon Prime Video (side note: The Boys is an amazing tonic for those growing weary of the Marvel Universe of heroes).
Over this weekend of culinary education, there was one more lesson to learn about marinaded chicken. Specifically, we learned how not to cook it. During this summer, which my son and I have dubbed GrillFest, we have been experimenting with natural lump charcoal as grilling fuel. I have been a Kingsford loyalist for a long time, but I’m starting to try a different approach to expand my area of expertise and round out my son’s barbecue education. So far, we’ve sampled three different brands, and Sunday was a mesquite night. Harry loaded up the charcoal chimneys and got the fire started. I didn’t realize until it was time to put the embers into the grill that he had included a large log of mesquite amongst the smaller lumps of charred wood. I was annoyed that he hadn’t ensured more homogeneity in the pieces of charcoal, but I decided we would learn something regardless. I wouldn’t have used the big piece of wood, but that was based on my slightly obsessive-compulsive need for things to be equal and even. I had no actual data to back up my choice, so I was curious to find out what would happen. What did happen is the grill quickly reached a high cooking temperature, but the inferno was short-lived. For the most part, once the smaller embers had flamed out, the chicken cooked over a smoldering log of mesquite. We cooked the breasts in two batches, and by the time the second batch went on the grate, the temperature had plummeted. The fire was barely adequate to roast a marshmallow, and as a result, it took twice as long as expected to get the breasts up to a sufficient salmonella-exterminating temperature. In the end, they tasted okay, but the chicken lacked the magic of a good Maillard reaction. A friend reminded me recently that there is no greatness without failure, and I appreciate that my son gave us both the opportunity to learn a little something about cooking with lump charcoal. I recently saw a meme that read, “Be teachable. You’re not always right.” Wise words from the interwebs.
* ”Soyu” is a synonym for soy sauce. I have most often seen it spelled “shoyu,” which is how it’s pronounced, but in our house, we spell it without the “h.” Family tradition occasionally wins out over correctness.