Fast and Furious Hibachi-style Grilling Is Both Dinner and Theater

By: Tara Yarlagadda  | 

hibachi
A chef works an open air hibachi grill, where customers can select their entree and then watch while it's prepared in front of them. Paul Morigi/Getty Images

If you were a kid growing up in America from the 1980s onward, there's a good chance you attended — or even hosted — a family gathering or birthday party at the chain restaurant Benihana.

Maybe you delighted in the chefs who chopped your food at lightning-fast speed and grilled your meal before your very eyes. Benihana is perhaps the most famous American incarnation of the hibachi — sometimes known as teppanyaki — style of cooking.

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Hibachi Grilling

In the modern day, hibachi typically refers to a type of Japaneseportable grill, popular in the United States, that allows for cooking indoors or outdoors.

But, in the U.S., hibachi has also taken on a different meaning, where it's commonly associated with chefs who grill food right before their customers, providing a hearty and entertaining meal through spatula flips and lightning-fast chopping skills.

"Hibachi, also known as teppanyaki, style cooking, is where a chef will come, in a sense, prepare your dinner right in front of you," says Branden Fatla, general manager at Shinto, a Japanese restaurant and sushi bar in Naperville, Illinois.

"So, with hibachi style dining, you get not only a beautiful dinner to enjoy, but also entertainment as well. So, you know, the showmanship is just as valuable as the quality of the food and the taste," says Fatla.

A common meal cooked hibachi-style in a restaurant will usually involve grilling some fried rice and veggies followed by cooking your choice of meat, which often includes steak or chicken.

"In the sense of protein, you have your common strip steak to you know, your Chateaubriand — which is your prime cut of meat — chicken, swordfish, tuna, calamari, lobster, scallops, salmon. So, there is a wide variety," says Fatla.

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The History of Hibachi

The hibachi has its origins in Japan, where it translates to "fire pot." These small pots or braziers weren't primarily used for cooking, but, instead, generated heat by containing charcoal or other ashes. They were made of many materials, including ceramic, wood, metal and clay.

Popularized by Asian-Americans, hibachi started to gain recognition prominence in the post-war U.S.

In 1959, Japanese wrestler Rocky Aoki, came to the U.S. seeking opportunity. Using $30,000 in savings and loans, he opened the first Benihana Japanese steakhouse restaurant in New York, wowing Americans by bringing chefs from the kitchen to the front of the restaurant to cook food and perform shows for customers.

The proliferation of Japanese cuisine and sushi restaurants in the mainstream U.S. in the 1960s may have also made customers more open to trying hibachi.

But for home cooks, hibachi grills started gaining traction with mainstream middle-class audiences in the 1970s, whose appetite for barbecuing was rapidly growing, as seen by the explosion in hibachi grill patents. Many Americans were drawn to the appeal of the hibachi grill, which generates little smoke indoors and can allow for year-round cooking.

Ebony magazine even featured hibachi in its May 1971 issue, touting the central role of barbecuing in the Black community as a reason to try out the hibachi, which it said has "become a fixture in many American homes."

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Hibachi vs. Teppanyaki

Many restaurateurs and customers alike tend to confuse hibachi and teppanyaki, as both involve the chef preparing ingredients on a grill over an open flame.

"I'll have guests, you know, mention when they call, 'Hey, do you guys know teppanyaki style cooking? You know, where the chef cooks next to you?" says Fatla. "'I'm like, oh, hibachi?"

But there are a few key differences between the two cooking styles. Hibachi refers specifically to compact, portable cast iron grills that use an open grate and charcoal to barbecue food.

On the other hand, teppanyaki involves an open-faced, propane-powered iron griddle, which the chef uses to artfully chop and grill food fresh in front of guests.

So, what a lot of people commonly think of as hibachi is actually teppanyaki-style cooking.

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Buying a Hibachi Grill

Now that we've whet your appetite, you might be craving some hibachi-style food. But if there isn't a hibachi restaurant nearby, or if you prefer to put your chef's hat on, consider purchasing a hibachi grill for home use. Most of them are portable, so they're great for a backyard picnic or a road trip.

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