The hibachi grill entered the pop-culture lexicon about 10 years ago, thanks to MasterChef Australia. In 2020, it hit somewhat of a peak on the cooking show, with contestants using it to grill everything from cucumber to trout. As a result, electrical retailers like Kogan.com have reported a 1,600 per cent increase in sales for the grill from March to April 2020.
But what is it, really? Can we use a standard frying pan or a Weber gas barbecue and get the same charred effect? Akihito and Keiko Fujiwara, a Japanese Australian couple, have the answers. They can also explain why the small portable grill is so integral to Japanese cooking and culture.
“Hibachi means ‘fire or heating bowl’ in Japanese. It started as a personal, portable heater made with porcelain, copper, lacquer and had beautiful designs. It was almost like art. Japanese houses can be quite cold, so people kept this small charcoal heater for themselves. Later they put a grill over it, and it became a cooking device,” Akihito says.
This morphed into the ubiquitous hibachi grill that we recognise: a cooking rather than a heating device. Because of its compact size, it was a good fit in small, Japanese homes. It also become something that people took on camping trips to cook freshly caught fish.
Many Asian cultures have similar grilled food over charcoal such as satay or chả cá lã vọng. But the best thing about using a portable cooking device, according to Keiko, is that one person is not cooking alone in the kitchen; instead, it becomes a group effort. “We can put the family-size grill on the table, to cook and eat together. When there are guests over, it is a good way to bring people closer and get to know them,” she says.
Some families must be creative with this set-up, as the charcoal fire emits a lot of smoke and there’s a risk of constantly setting off the fire alarm. Electric grills have somewhat solved this problem but for people who prefer their grills old-school, this means huddling around it on a balcony or perching it under a range hood in the kitchen.
“Hibachi means ‘fire or heating bowl’ in Japanese. It started out as a personal, portable heater made with porcelain, copper, lacquer and had beautiful designs. It was almost like art."
Keiko contrasts this with the typical Australian backyard barbecue set-up, which requires a larger, outdoor space. “There is always one person, usually the dad, who cooks while the guests talk and mingle. That person cannot join the conversation as much or entertain guests until they finish cooking,” she says.
The Fujiwaras also believe that cooking together is an excellent way to gauge personal compatibility. “Couples who go out for yakiniku or a hotpot meal - one where they have to partly cook the food themselves - will learn a lot about each other. They will notice little things, like who is taking ownership, who is making sure the food is properly cooked, who is not sure what to do," she says.
There are also important distinctions in the type and cuts of meat used for a hibachi grill. The beef or pork meat used on a hibachi grill should ideally be thinly sliced strips so that it can be cooked within four to five minutes and then eaten with the dipping sauces. Seafood and vegetables are also ideal candidates, to get that smoky, charred flavour.
Kazuo Takemura, who owns a gourmet Japanese butcher shop in Melbourne clarifies this further, as his customers come to him specifically to procure meat for yakiniku, sukiyaki or shabu-shabu. “For yakiniku or grilled meat, the strips should be medium thin. The thinly sliced meat is for sukiyaki or shabu-shabu. The strips of meat can come from any part of the animal, what is important is the marbling. More marbling means more flavour,” he explains.
This is important because in Japanese-style barbecue, the meat is not always marinaded. Instead, the quality of the meat and the dipping sauces provide the flavour.
And the type or model of hibachi grill used isn't necessarily significant, because yakiniku and other Japanese eating traditions are really about socialising. “Japanese culture is all about cooking and eating together,” she says.
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