Walk out of a building in the afternoon in most any Japanese city and you're bound to find a Yakitori cart or shop. These venders grill up meat on sticks that are consumed by millions in Japan. This is a truly grilled meal, cooked over a hot, direct fire. There are many Japanese dishes like this; unfortunately, most places seem to have forgotten about the fire.
Somewhere in the modern world, someone invented the large heated metal plate.
This cooking unit can be found in bars, mall food courts, and even fancy restaurants where they prepare your meal right at your table. While this is an easy and convenient way of cooking food fast, it does nothing for the flavor. So many of the world's greatest recipes have been taken off the fire and put on this large gas burner heated metal plate. It's kind of like cooking on a car hood.
You can bring back the authentic flavors by taking so many of these dishes out to the grill and putting them over a real fire, the way they were meant to be cooked. Take for instance Beef Sukiyaki. A great dish that literally means grilled beef. This is a great, grilled steak cut into thin strips and grilled with vegetables tossed in to complete the meal. Most Japanese dishes start this way, with thin strips of meat, whether it's beef, chicken or practically anything else. Hot and fast is how these meats are meant to be cooked and your backyard grill gives you the perfect tool to do it.
The secret to really great Japanese food is something lost in many restaurants. The key ingredients are the meats, seafood, and vegetables, not the sauces and coatings that drip over them. Any sauce, spice mixture, marinade or seasoning is meant to enhance the flavor of foods, not overpower them. For instance, if you want to make beef teriyaki, one of my favorites, start with a good steak, lightly marinade it in a thin teriyaki sauce then throw it on a hot grill.
You want to grill it hot and fast while occasionally brushing with the marinade. When you are done, don't cover it in teriyaki sauce, but serve with a small amount on the side. The sauce can flavor the rice but shouldn't drown out the meat.
If you are a true devotee of Japanese cooking, look through your recipes. You’ll probably find that many of them have evolved from their original grilled origins to satisfy people's desire for a quick stove top solution. We owe it to ourselves and our favorite cuisines to trace them back to their original, more flavorful past. Remember that the Japanese developed Hibachi grills and charcoal hundreds of years ago for the express purpose of grilling food. They wouldn't have worked that hard if they had large heated metal plates in every corner shop.
For more information on Japanese Cooking visit Judy Ung's fantastic Japanese Cuisine Website.