When many people think of hibachi, they think about the Japanese-style teppanyaki dining that’s popular among Japanese-style restaurants in the U.S. With its literal translation meaning “fire bowl,” the word refers more to the tool that cooks the food than it does to a particular style of dining. Historically, the tool wasn’t even used to cook food until many centuries after its inception, as it was initially a heating device used by the Japanese to hold burning charcoal. The earliest devices were cylindrical or box-shaped with an open top. They were made from heatproof materials, such as cypress wood lined with clay. Although it was many years before it was used as a cooking device, it is associated in the U.S. with the small cooking stoves or iron hot plates used in modern Japanese restaurants.
A Long, Rich History
Hibachi traces its roots as far back as AD 794, when the first written records indicating its use appeared. Those early heating tools were made of cypress, with a clay lining on the inside that was strong enough to resist the fire. As with most tools, the design improved over time, and before long, craftsmen began making them out of ceramic, metal, and other heatproof materials. During this time, they also transformed from practical devices into decorative pieces featuring lacquered finishes and other embellishments. While they were initially used by aristocrats and samurai in Japan, it wasn’t long before all classes of people started using these practical devices to generate heat.
In the hundreds of years since they were originally developed, the heat bowls have evolved and taken on new uses. Prior to World War II, they were still used as heating devices, but during the war, Japanese troops used them as cigarette lighters and portable stoves. After the war, they were replaced by oil heaters, but they are stilled used today for some traditional Japanese ceremonies, and also as decorative antique items.
Hibachi in the U.S.
The hibachi grill made its way to America after World War II, when Americans wanted to re-create the meals they experienced while traveling to other parts of the world. Many restaurants began using small aluminum or cast iron grills to allow patrons to cook their own food at their table, which in turn contributed to the rise in popularity of grilling skewered meat and vegetables at home on small backyard grills.
Around the same time, this style of cooking took off at modern Japanese-style restaurants in the U.S. This type of dining experience emphasizes entertainment as much as it does the meal itself. Typically, guests gather around one large table, with a flat-top grill made of cast iron or sheet metal in the middle. The chefs cook Japanese fare in front of the guests, often adding a theatrical flair to the meal to keep guests entertained while waiting for their food. While the appropriate term for this type of meal is teppanyaki, it’s commonly referred to as hibachi in American culture.