When one envisions the characteristics of Japanese cuisine, common preparation methods such as sushi, tempura battering and frying, and sashimi come to mind. However, the modern day grilling technique of hibachi, popularized by many americanized Japanese restaurants and grills, is actually one of the most famous cooking techniques in Japanese gastronomy. The origins of the hibachi as a heating apparatus can be traced back centuries in Japanesehistory; however, hibachi, as we recognize presently, spent centuries evolving in both form and implementation. Despite hibachi’s seat as one of the most refined and skilled cooking techniques in Japanese fine dining venues and eateries, its origins are actually quite humble and contrary to the way hibachis are used today.
Hibachi in itself can trace its origins from the term “teppanyaki”, which in the Japanese language loosely equates to “grilling over an iron plate”. The first records of hibachi-style heating devices are alluded to during the Heian period of Japanese history, dating from 794 until 1185 AD. Because metal was not resource commonly found in Japan, the earliest hibachis were crafted from an amalgam of the wood from cypress trees, which werethen lined with clay. Primarily these devices functioned for their capacity to emit heat, and were not originally intended for cooking. With the passage of time, these apparatuses became more artisanal in appearance, and they began to feature delicate exterior finishes, including ornate painting and designs in addition to golf leafing techniques.
Over time, as trade routes expanded and metals became more widely available in Japan, hibachis themselves began to assume a form more similar to how we know them today. Nonethless, these heating devices were originally limited to use by samurais and wealthy dynasties, and it wasn’t until they became coveted by the lower classes that the general population of Japan began to use them. Once hibachis became more integrated into the homes of a larger stratification of social classes, their functions began to diversify. In addition to heating, hibachis had been used for multiple purposes including cigarette lighters, portable stovetops, and even heating devices in lieu of oil heaters during colder winter weather. As such, hibachis became commonplace objects during traditional Japanese celebrations, including tea ceremonies and during outdoor winter events and festivities.
The transition from hibachis as heating devicesto hibachis as a cooking tool is commonly disputed among culinary enthusiasts and scholars. Some evidence suggests that cooking using a hibachi-style grill could have begun in Japan over 200 years ago. However, counterarguments claim that hibachi cooking did not actually begin until the mid-1900s. Because the original hibachis were small, it is hard to conceive how they eventually developed into the large, sprawling open grills that we see in many modern day high-end Japanese restaurants.
Historically, the first restaurant to implement hibachi cooking on record opened in 1945 in Japan. The intention of these restaurants was not simply to serve food, but instead to entertain their guests with food preparation and impressive diversions. Strategies for entertaining guests included demonstrating knife skills, juggling ingredients and condiments, and even performing tricks with the flames emitted by the hot grill. This methodology of cooking as entertainment eventually became idealized not by native Japanese citizens but instead by tourists and those enamored by the exotic traditions of Japanese culture. Eventually, in the later half of the twentieth century, hibachi style cooking was implemented in the United States with high success rate and accolades. Therefore, it may be true that hibachi cooking was at some point used in Japanese households as a means of meal preparation. However, it was not until Japanese tourism became popular that hibachi cooking became appreciated just as much for its performative valuesas it was for its contributions to Japanese gastronomy.
Presently, hibachi-style Japanese restaurants are popular not only in Japan and the United States, but also worldwide. In this method of food preparation, guests are still entertained by live chefs, circling the perimeter of a large grill as friends and strangers alike come together for a meal. The foods utilized in hibachi cooking can vary, but usually meats, vegetables, and rice are the main stars of the dishes. The heating mechanism itself is utilized for adding grilled flavor to the food, and as such seasonings are limited to a few additional ingredients, including soy sauce for umami flavor, vinegar for acid, and salt, pepper and garlic as spices.