Hibachi restaurants are a favorite of Westerners who enjoy a show along with their delicious Japanese meal. As an ideal setting for those celebrating a special occasion or just seeking a fun night out with family and friends, hibachi serves up the food tableside. Foods are delivered with grace, style, and flair by an accomplished hibachi chef.
But there is much more to hibachi than just a tableside chef dazzling patrons with theatrical knifework and fun tricks with the food. In Japan, the hibachi is actually an open-topped container, either square or cylindrical. It holds charcoal and has a grill on top for heating and cooking food. The grilling style that Westerners call hibachi is actually teppanyaki in Japan.
However, true Japanese teppanyaki is quite different from Western hibachi. Fusing ancient cooking techniques with fresh, flavorful ingredients, teppanyaki focuses more on delivering good food, rather than a fun performance.
The History of Teppanyaki
Approximately 200 years ago, teppanyaki was a style of cooking in Japan that utilized an iron plate (teppan) to cook foods. The other part of the word, yaki, means “cooked.” And while teppanyaki has been around for a couple of centuries, it wasn’t until 1945 that a restaurant in Kobe, Japan, began serving food teppanyaki-style.
The restaurant, Misono, favored Western-style foods combined with Eastern flavors, and its chefs cooked the food on a large teppan right in front of patrons. At the time, the performance was close to none. In fact, you rarely see any performances at all at teppanyaki restaurant in Japan even today. That is a stark contrast to today’s dinner theatre available at many Japanese steakhouses in America.
Flavors of Teppanyaki
Just like Japanese cuisine focuses on fresh and flavorful ingredients, so too does teppanyaki cooking. Chicken, beef, and shrimp are the most common foods cooked for Western-style teppanyaki. Of course, hibach also features crisp, vibrant vegetables and rice. All are lightly seasoned with soybean oil and/or teriyaki sauce and served accompanied with various sauces for further flavor enhancement.
However, in many traditional Japanese teppanyaki restaurants, the chefs often take pride in cooking the food perfectly with only a hint of seasoning. Thus, you can enjoy the natural flavors of the ingredients to shine. Some restaurants also have their own signature sauce.
The Difference Between Western Hibachi and Japanese-Style Teppanyaki
For starters, Japanese-style teppanyaki restaurants rarely serve the types of dishes you’d see in a Western Japanese steakhouse. They offer a specific courses featuring fine Wagyu beef and seafood for a flat fee of around $100 and up. While hibachi restaurants in America seem to be synonymous with the hibachi chefs doing tricks at the table, in Japan, the food serves as the art, not the chef’s performance.
However, “teppanyaki” also refers to any dishes cooked on a “teppan”, a large iron plate. So, many non-fine teppanyaki restaurants in Japan offer a much broader menu such as yakisoba and okonomiyaki. An okonomiyaki restaurant, in particular, provides patrons with a unique experience. Instead of a chef cooking for you, the patrons can actually cook their own dish on the plate if they desire.