In the United States, the hibachi style of Japanese cooking is characterized by communal dining around a large grill table, the centerpiece of which is the chef, who puts on a show, flipping knives and performing feats with fire as he prepares the meal. The term “hibachi” refers to the type of grill. Also known as teppanyaki, the cuisine itself typically includes an animal protein, commonly steak, chicken, shrimp, scallops or other seafood, as well as fried rice and an assortment of vegetables. In addition to the essential butter or oil, hibachi chefs use various spices to add flavor to their creations.
The three principal dry spices found in hibachi cuisine are garlic, ginger and sesame seeds. Garlic imparts the most intense flavor when used in whole clove form, although garlic paste and jarred minced garlic are quite pungent as well. Garlic powder and garlic salt aren’t as potent but are easy to work with and last for months or even years. Ginger appears in various forms: fresh, pickled, candied, paste and powdered. The fresh, whole root is preferred for cooking, although, as with garlic, ginger paste and powder provide handy substitutes. Sesame seeds come in three varieties: white, tan and black, and often may be toasted.
Soy sauce is made by fermenting soybeans, salt and water, and sometimes wheat. High in sodium, soy sauce adds a distinctive salty taste to hibachi dishes. Choose a low-sodium variety if you’re watching your salt intake. The recipe for soy sauce, also known as shoyu, was brought to Japan from China during early medieval times. Japanese soy sauces differ from their Chinese counterparts, as wheat is typically a primary ingredient, imparting a slightly sweeter flavor. However, the prized tamari soy sauce, darker and richer than other Japanese varieties, contains no wheat, making it suitable for those with gluten intolerance.
Mirin is a sweet, golden cooking wine made from rice. It is similar to sake but possesses a lower alcohol content. Some hibachi chefs refer to mirin simply as “rice wine.” Mirin helps bind sauces and glazes to the food and imparts a sweet flavor. Unlike most other cooking wines, mirin must be refrigerated after opening.
Hibachi restaurants offer a variety of dipping sauces to pair with the meat and vegetables. The most common sauces include ginger, sesame, miso, fruit and white. Ginger sauce, typically watery and brown in color, contains ginger, garlic, soy sauce, white vinegar or sake, sugar and sometimes onion, oil or lemon juice. Sesame sauce includes garlic, soy sauce, mirin, sugar and both sesame oil and sesame seeds. Miso paste is added to the thin mixture of soy sauce, garlic, onion, sugar and oil to make miso sauce.
Fruit sauces are thicker in consistency. Usually based on either orange or pineapple, they also contain soy sauce, oil and a thickening agent, such as tomato paste or honey. White sauce, sometimes known as shrimp sauce because it pairs particularly well with shrimp, is also more viscous. White sauces are mayonnaise-based and often incorporate butter, rice vinegar, sugar, garlic and paprika.