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Teppanyaki: Where Less is More

June 19, 2017

The gleaming metal griddle. The ching-ching of spinning knives, wielded by a crack team of expert cooks. The sizzle of perfectly-marbled premium beef. The sudden “whoosh”, and the gasps of delighted diners, as a flash of flame briefly engulfs the cooking surface. The danger! The drama! The decadence! These are well-storied elements of the sensory experience known as teppanyaki dining.

Though commonly associated with the flashy Westernized institution of the “Japanese Steakhouse”, teppanyaki is really much more than that, and just as often, less.

Indeed, depending on who you ask, teppanyaki may bring to mind nothing more than a grimy yakisoba stand, with some wizened character churning out servings of fried noodles for hungry festival goers. Someone else may picture a cozy okonomiyaki joint, where diners mix up their own ingredients and fry the savory pancakes right at their own table. Or, it could conjure up neon-lit memories of the go-go 80s, with a gang of bubble-era businessmen salivating over a tiny morsel of obscenely pricey steak, while nimble cooks twirl knives and set the grill ablaze in a stunning display of skill and ostentation.

But, at its core, “teppanyaki” is simply a way of cooking, and is hardly better at describing the cuisine than a word like “pot” or “pan”. In the remarkably specific world of Japanese food, it’s ironic that the words assigned to dishes can often seem rather vague to the uninitiated. Take “nabe”, for instance. The word itself may simply mean “cooking pot”, but to the Japanese it conjures up comforting images of a bubbling communal hot pot dinner, shared by family or friends to stave off the winter blues. Translated directly without context, though, and it’s little more than an empty vessel.

The same goes for “teppanyaki”. On the face of it, “teppan” is just a metal plate or griddle, and “yaki” simply means to cook (or burn). This gives us a hint as to the “how”, but no indication of the “what”. Perhaps this is just as well. This hot, shining metal plate can be a blank canvas, enabling culinary expression from the mundane to the sublime.

The teppan itself may be all precision and clean lines, but the history of teppanyaki dining itself is less so. The “Japanese Steakhouse”, revered in the West for its theatrics and mixture of the familiar and exotic, may have come to prominence in post-war Tokyo, but its roots likely harken further back to the advent of modern iron manufacturing. Earlier in the 20th century, yakisoba and okonomiyaki, dishes especially associated with Western Japan, were sometimes cooked on gas-heated metal griddles. In the latter half of the 1940s, though, it seems the teppan itself was foregrounded to give diners an often thrilling ringside look at the expert knife-work of the cooks and fresh, high-quality ingredients sizzling seductively right before their eyes. This spectacle, coupled with the luxurious, Western-influenced “steakhouse” concept, apparently proved more popular with foreign visitors than typical Japanese diners. With an emphasis on showmanship and pyrotechnics, the format was soon exported to the United States, where it still enjoys great success as an exotic experience in decadent dining.

Back here in Japan, though, teppanyaki appears at nearly all points of the luxury spectrum. As I often tell people back in my home country of Canada, one of the great things about Japan is that you can enjoy decent food at almost any price point, and teppanyaki is no exception. While it’s still easy to go out and spend a small fortune at a high-end establishment, those of us on a more modest budget can easily uncover that sensuous sizzle closer to home with just a little searching.

In the name of unselfish(!) culinary fact-finding, I recently conducted such a search, and settled on a cozy neighborhood spot for a first-hand taste of unpretentious teppanyaki dining.

Even in this warm, low-key eatery, softly-lit with mellow jazz on the sound system, I still managed to witness some rather impressive culinary skill at play. The cooks, while forgoing any theatrics or choreography, still displayed some pretty flashy knife-work, and in this calmer setting I was able to see how they used different parts of the teppan to various ends – searing the meat and seafood in the hotter center, meanwhile using the cooler edges for slower cooking egg dishes and keeping things warm before plating. And, yes, I was even treated to a few brief, exciting flashes of flame.

Sizzling scallops, with veggies on the side

What struck me most throughout the meal, though, was the delicacy and complexity of the flavors, given the relative simplicity of their preparation. One of the defining characteristics of Japanese food in general is the emphasis on fresh, quality ingredients, unobscured by excessive seasoning or sauces, and here this ethos was given its due. Plump oysters and scallops sizzled quietly on the lightly-oiled teppan, nearly unadorned, save for a light dusting of flour. When plated with lemon, seared vegetables, and a tangy dipping sauce, the rich flavor of the seafood itself was a revelation.

Much the same was true of the meat – three cuts of Wagyu beef served with rock salt, wasabi, toasted garlic, and an intriguing cube of “awa shoyu”, soy sauce heated on the teppan and whipped into a savory mousse. Adding just a hint of these bold seasonings, one could still marvel at the subtle variations in texture and taste between the rich morsels of quality beef.

More modest (but no less delicious) fare included a beautifully presented okonomiyaki, a rich, rolled omelet with pork, and an unbelievably tasty garlic rice onigiri, which retained its crispness even when served in dashi stock.

Okonomiyaki before... and after

Finally, there was a delightful, if atypical, grilled camembert, kissed with balsamic reduction and served with a maple syrup dip, which seemed to disappear in front of my eyes before I could say… “cheese?”

The aromas and flavors danced across my palate all the way home, and nearly as satisfying was knowing that my meal had only offered a hint of this unassuming metal plate’s true potential. I’m anxious to venture out and resume my teppanyaki “research” before too long, and whatever your budget, whatever your taste, I suggest you do the same.

Text and photos: Marcus Hutchings

Teppanyaki grow
2-24-2 Koishikawa, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo
Tel: (+81) 3-6801-6467