To most people, Japanese food means sushi, sashimi, sukiyaki, or soba noodles. You may be surprised to learn that Japan has a venerable tradition of grilling. Actually, two traditions of grilling exist here: an haute cuisine style called robatayaki and a more populist style called yakitori. This became clear on a recent trip to a country that happens to be especially dear to me: I was born in Nagoya, Japan.
In the course of my grill hopping in Japan, I savored delicate dengaku (tofu grilled on "stilts") at a tranquil tea house on the Philosopher’s Walk in Kyoto. I munched crisp barbecued rice cakes brushed with mouth-puckeringly tart plum paste from street vendors outside Tokyo’s venerated Sensoji Temple. I ate chicken teriyaki and miso-glazed eggplants in the rough and tumble yakitori joints under the train station near the neon-lit Ginza. But my ultimate experience in Japanese grilling was dinner at Tokyo’s Inakaya.
Unassuming from the outside, the restaurant occupies the second floor of a small, post-war high-rise in the fashionable Rapongi district. You pass by a bowl of salt (a symbol of hospitality) and a bamboo vase filled with peach blossoms on your way to a dining experience quite unlike anything in North America.
Very Welcomed Guests
The moment my wife, Barbara, and I entered, a waiter in a blue and white robe shouted out our arrival. His co-workers repeated the announcement in voices that could have roused the dead. We took our seats amid more shouting ("the customer is sitting down," "the customer is ordering") at a U-shaped bar surrounding a dazzling, market-like array of ingredients. There were wicker baskets filled with vegetables (okra, shiitakes, leeks, yams, and baby taro roots to name a few) glistening blocks of ice piled with whole fish, giant prawns, and monstrously large king crab claws trays of pork, chicken, and marbled kobe beef. I tried to enumerate the individual items displayed here, but lost count after forty.
Kneeling on a platform overlooking all this bounty is a chef wearing a blue and white bandana around his head. We ordered sake. There was another round of shouting and the chef thrust a 10-foot-long wooden paddle at us with a small wooden box in a bowl at the end. A waiter appeared with a flask and filled the bowl with sake, spilling the wine into the shallow box underneath. Generosity is the name of the game at Inakaya, and for the next two hours we were treated to a largesse that bordered on conspicuous consumption.
Appetizers arrived without our ordering them: a plate of sashimi, a small carrot and kampyo (gourd) salad, a cold kebab of Kobe beef, the world’s most expensive meat. (The cows are raised on beer and massaged to make the meat tender.) We don’t speak Japanese, so we pointed to the various ingredients displayed on the U-shaped counter in front of the chef and the real meal-the robatayaki-began.
Robatayaki takes its name from the Japanese words ro and yaki. The former refers to a square hearth around which peasants would gather for warmth and cooking. Yaki means "grilled," and in the old days the grilling would have been done over charcoal. Many yakitori parlors still grill this way, but Inakaya takes a more high tech approach, cooking the food over infrared gas grills that are tiny by American standards. Our entire dinner was cooked on a grill not much longer than my forearm and not much wider than the palm of my hand.
In rapid succession we were served tiny kebabs of grilled asparagus, shiitake mushroom caps, even okra. (The latter are downright amazing grilled.) Nothing is too weird for a robatayaki chef: baby yams, quail eggs, even ginko nuts, which taste like waxy potatoes. The shouting goes unabated, the paddle delivers an endless succession of treats. We wanted to continue like this for the rest of the evening, which is exactly what we did.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of robatayaki-even beyond the noisy theatrics and belt-loosening generosity-is the utter simplicity of the preparation. Sure, there’s a brushing of teriyaki sauce here. A dollop of miso sauce there. A drizzle of melted butter. But most of the fare is seasoned solely with salt. The flavors are direct and natural, but from these simple seasonings the chef creates a symphonic range of flavor. The tallest soufflé, the richest French pastry couldn’t rival the simple, unadorned slice of exquisitely ripe melon Inakaya serves for dessert.
Given the meticulousness of Japanese cooking, the precise, almost painterly plate presentations, it’s easy to lose sight of the joyful aspect of Japanese cuisine. Yet joyful and festive are the operative words at Inakaya, not to mention at virtually every place we dined in Japan. You might expect such refined food to be eaten in sacerdotal silence. But Japanese epicures drink hard and party heartily-especially when partaking of their favorite foods.
Happy Hour, Japanese-Style
This is especially true at the yakitori joints one finds in or under virtually all of the train stations in Tokyo. The yakitori parlor is a uniquely Japanese institution: part pub, part barbecue joint, to which Japanese office workers (aka "salary men") flock after work for a snack, a cigarette, a couple of beers, and some ear-splitting conversation before embarking on the long commute home by train.
The yakitori parlor isn’t big (some have only a half dozen seats) and it certainly isn’t fancy. For example, one of the most famous yakitori parlors in Tokyo, Tonton, doesn’t even have four walls. But to come to Japan without visiting a yakitori parlor would be missing an important cultural experience.
Yakitori takes its name from the Japanese words for "grilled" (yaki) and "chicken" (tori). Unlike upscale grill restaurants, like Inakaya, yakitori parlors still use charcoal grills-often a trough-like brazier mounted on legs in the front of the restaurant. The traditional charcoal is bincho, made from the slow-burning holm oak in the Wakayama Prefecture near Kyoto.
According to some authorities, yakitori (or at least the practice of grilling) originated with Dutch traders who settled in Nagasaki. Indeed, one popular Tokyo yakitori chain goes by the name Nanbantei, literally, "Restaurant of the Southern Barbarians," which is what the Japanese called the early European traders.
As for the tori (chicken), most yakitori parlors offer an impressive selection of different cuts. There are momo yaki (chicken legs-preferred to breast meat because they have more fat and flavor), shiitake toriyaki (chicken and mushroom kebabs), negi toriyaki (chicken and leek kebabs), and tsukune yaki (chicken meatballs). Adventurous eaters can move on to kawa yaki (grilled chicken skin), hatsu yaki (chicken hearts), bonchiri yaki ("pope’s noses"), and uzura yaki (grilled quail eggs). Nor are vegetarians neglected: just order some nasu yaki (grilled eggplant brushed with miso glaze), piiman yaki (tiny grilled peppers), or ginnan yaki (grilled ginkgo nuts).
Not bad for a restaurant that in most incarnations occupies less space than your bedroom! You pay by the skewer, which makes yakitori relatively inexpensive. (This is one of the few dining experiences you will have in Tokyo that leaves you change from a 2,000 yen note-about $16.) The traditional beverage at a yakitori parlor is beer.
In the West (particularly in North and South America), the quality of a barbecue is measured in part by how many notches it forces you to loosen your belt. You’d certainly never call it health food. How different is Japanese grilling! Whether at a robatayaki restaurant or at a humble yakitori joint, meats are used almost as a condiment. Sauces tend to be based on broths, not oils, eggs, or other fats. The portions are moderate, even modest, with most items being served in bite-size pieces. Small is beautiful in Japan. The food, at least, speaks to you in whispers, not shouts.
For me this sense of moderation is the most important lesson Western grill buffs can learn from Japan. That, and to keep shouting and have fun.
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