Nowadays, many people are familiar with the customs of teppanyaki; the Japanese art of cooking on a hot griddle in front of guests. Over the last ten years, teppanyaki restaurants have gained enormously in popularity and the number of teppanyaki restaurants has increased steadily. Where does this widely spread cooking style originate from? How did the principle of sharing your table with other guests find its way to culinary acknowledgement by many?
From shovels to grill plates
‘Teppanyaki’ literally means ‘grilled on an iron plate’ (teppan = iron plate, yaki = grill). In Japan, this is probably the oldest method of preparing food, invented when the Japanese grilled their fish on a shovel above an open fire. Slowly, this evolved into the sophisticated teppan grill that we know today. Teppanyaki may therefore not be authentic, but it is definitely a time-honoured tradition; one that started in the port of Kobe. In 1945 the first teppanyaki restaurant was opened by a chef who wanted to attract a non-oriental clientele. Meat was key, he felt, because Western people like to eat meat, while the traditional Japanese kitchen is more about fish. He was right; the restaurant became a big success in Kobe. Although it was inspired by Western habits, there were a lot of Japanese elements in it, most prominently the way of cooking – on a hot plate, surrounded by guests. This is a variant of the Okonomiyaki culture, a traditional Japanese way of cooking. Other Japanese elements were the use of chopsticks and the high quality of all ingredients. These formed the foundation of the teppanyaki kitchen. The success of this particular restaurant was the reason that the Japanese wrestling champion ‘Rocky Aoki’ opened a teppanyaki restaurant in New York in 1968: Teppanyaki American-style. The cooks – usually not of Japanese origin – juggled with knives and played with fire.
The art of cooking
The chefs of Okura’s Teppanyaki Restaurant Sazanka, emphasise that there is a big difference between both variants of the teppanyaki kitchen. “The American way is all about showmanship; the quality of the ingredients is of minor importance.” In the Okonomiyaki tradition, however, quality is paramount. In Sazanka one finds the latter; the team demonstrates that their exquisite cooking is a far cry from the ‘show-and-throw’ spectacle often associated with teppanyaki cuisine. Fish, meat and vegetarian dishes, side dishes and desserts are presented with gastronomic allure, in which the quality of the ingredients is of central importance.