Hibachi is a Japanese style of cooking where the food is prepared over an uncovered, flaming grill. In the United States, we have hibachi restaurants where the chefs will prepare your food hibachi-style right in front of you, but is Hibachi as we know it authentically Japanese? Keep reading to find out.
What is Hibachi?
In Japan, hibachi isn’t just the name of the style of preparation – it’s also the name of the heating device that the food is cooked over. Hibachi, which means “fire bowl” in Japanese, are small round, cylindrical, or square braziers that are designed to contain burning charcoal, and feature an open top for the flame. Hibachi should only be used in well-ventilated buildings, because they have been known to cause carbon monoxide poisoning. Most Western homes aren’t ventilated properly for hibachi devices, which means that the small bazier can’t be used at home like they could in Japan.
When the device was created (presumably sometime during the Heian period), the hibachi was used for heating, not cooking food like they do in hibachi restaurants. Therefore, the devices in front of you at hibachi restaurant aren’t actually hibachi, but rather iron griddles that allow the chefs to actually cook large amounts of food at the same time.
Different Hibachi Styles
The style of cooking that we know to be hibachi in the United States may not be authentic to the way hibachi are supposed to be used, but it is an authentic style of Japanese preparation that goes by the name teppanyaki, and uses a completely different heating device than the hibachi (or shichirin, as they’re known in Japan).
Hibachi Devices vs. American Hibachi
For thousands of years, open-topped hibachi shichirin grills were used to heat homes and bowl water in Japan. Clearly, those aren’t the applications or characteristics Americans think of when we think “hibachi.”
At American hibachi restaurants, you’re guaranteed to find a chef at each table who prepares your order on a large griddle right in front you. Sometimes, the chef will even show off his or her extra-stealthy chopping skills, and engage the table by having guests catch shrimp, steak, pork, or chicken in their mouths. As mentioned, American hibachi restaurants don’t actually use the traditional hibachi grill to cook food, because hibachi weren’t originally created for cooking, and Western buildings weren’t designed to ventilate burning coal. You might also be surprised to learn the style of cooking isn’t called hibachi in Japan, either – it’s actually called teppanyaki, which is another style of Japanese cuisine.
American Hibachi vs. Teppanyaki
Teppanyaki, often confused with hibachi in the United States, is a Japanese cooking style that uses a large iron griddle to prepare food. Teppanyaki comes from the Japanese words teppan, which means “iron plate,” and yaki, which refers to the grilled, broiled, or pan-fried foods the griddle can make. Food that can be prepared with teppanyaki include steak, shrimp, fried noodles, okonomiyaki (savory pancakes), and monjayaki (pan-fried batter).
Despite Americans confusing teppan for shichirin for so long, the two devices aren’t interchangeable. They have some pretty major key differences, which is to be expected from a device that was meant to heat homes and a griddle to prepare food on.
Teppanyaki vs. Shichirin
The biggest differences between hibachi grills and teppan griddles is that teppan are made with a flat surface so that chefs can cook and chop food directly on them, and are typically heated by propane. Shichirin hibachi grills, on the other hand, are made with open-grate design and are heated by burning charcoal or a gas flame.
The Japanese also have their own style of grilling, called yakiniku, and it’s basically the Japanese equivalent of barbecue. Actually, yakiniku originated from Korean-style barbecue, but has since taken on a life of its own by introducing different kinds of marinades and sauces into the mix. Foods prepared yakiniku-style are cooked over a charcoal flame, and are often made with skewers coming through on each end of the pork or beef. Despite the fact that this style of cooking also uses open-topped charcoal burners, yakiniku barbecue is prepared on grills called yakitori-ki, not shichirin grills.
In summary, the devices and method of preparation known in American as “hibachi” isn’t authentic to what hibachi are truly known for in Japan. It is, however, an authentic way to cook Japanese food, but the style of cooking isn’t known as hibachi in Japan, either.