Fun and Excitement Cooking on a Japanese-Style Table-Top Grill

Times Staff Writer

Beyond the Mongolian hot pot and the fondue pot, there comes another potentially popular ethnic cooking gear: the Japanese-style table-top grill.

Responding to the trend toward home entertaining, the griddle-top charcoal-heated hibachi is fashioned for communal cooking, which always sparks excitement and fun at the dining table.

An authentic-looking replica of an old Japanese grill is the Tokyo Grill from Faroy Inc. Brought to the Western table from the East by a Houston couple many years ago, the cooking vessel is described in the Orient as nabe (pot) yaki (grill), meaning "grilled in the pot."

When Richard Everett and his wife, Patti, returned from a naval assignment in Japan after the Korean War, they lugged back a heavy, cast-iron grill that they had purchased in the PX. While the Everetts were stationed in Japan, the table-top cooker found great favor with American friends they entertained.

'Natural Ice Breaker'

"Back here, every time we've used it, our party guests wanted one too," Patti Everett recalled. "It's a natural ice breaker at the table. As one guest commented, 'It's hard not to be friends when you are elbow-to-elbow in the sauce.' "

Although the idea of marketing the grill in this country played in their minds for years, it was only in recent years that the Everetts found a means to do so. Through the help of Preston Frazier, production development manager for Faroy in Houston, the original grill was shipped for production to Taiwan, which today is one of the biggest cast-iron manufacturers, according to Frazier. The resulting product consists mainly of cast iron with a teak wood base. The round bottom section is like a regular hibachi and is filled with hot coals while the top platter-like section is made up of five connected griddles with a small well at each end. In the center of the griddle is a sauce bowl or a pot with a handle.

How does the Tokyo Grill work?

Ideally, you need six persons at the table, but you can comfortably entertain eight. If you're familiar with teppan yaki (mixed grill), you might like to start with that traditional recipe. Otherwise, there are limitless combinations of meats, seafoods, vegetables and fruits and various sauce ideas that can be used.

The host or hostess can prepare the mixed grill ingredients--usually beef, chicken breast, shrimp, scallops, Chinese pea pods, mushrooms, green onions, water chestnuts or whatever seasonal vegetable is available. The cook slices these in bite-size pieces and attractively arranges them on large platters or trays. It helps to free the cook of last-minute chores if the food is cut up in advance and refrigerated until guests arrive. When using the teppan yaki idea, a dipping sauce of soy sauce, a little butter, sake or vinegar would complement the grill assortment.

Light the Charcoal

An hour before serving time, the charcoal is lit, and when glowing red hot, the griddle is lightly greased and set on top. The sauce pot is filled with the dipping sauce to heat. Each guest is provided with a set of chopsticks (or fondue fork for the inexperienced) and individual plate.

When the grill is ready, each person selects food items from the platter and drops them into the bubbling sauce to briefly marinate for flavor. The food is picked up and placed on individual griddles, letting it sizzle to each one's taste. While everyone cooks and eats, the center pot is filled with more meat or vegetables and, if necessary, more dipping sauce.

Frazier recommends: "Provide lots of crusty French bread, cut in cubes. . . . My favorite part is dipping these in the well to coat them with the delicious drippings."

Like most cast-iron cookware, the Tokyo Grill has one drawback because of its heavy weight: the cleaning stage after each use. As a preliminary step to aid in cleaning and to help prevent sticking during cooking, the grill also needs to be seasoned. To do so, wipe all cooking surfaces with salad oil and place in a 450-degree oven for about 30 minutes.

More Expensive Item

Another new hibachi-type grill that would not have as much problem with cleaning is the upscale and more expensive Ichi. Created by owner John Scheufler, a physical science professor in San Diego, the stylish Ichi grill with contemporary looks is lightweight (about 12 1/2 pounds) and portable, consisting of detachable parts. Named to mean "one" or "the best" in Japanese, the Ichi is described by Scheufler as "the grill for all seasons." It combines mixed cultures in dining, such as Oriental cooking, shish kebab and barbecue grilling as well as fondue, appetizer dipping, flapjacks or tiny crepes suzettes.

The Ichi consists of the following detachable parts: a hexagonal platter with a non-stick, coated aluminum surface, a two-level (for heat control) center bowl, a ceramically coated metal base and pot, and a grill for barbecuing. Packaged in a gift box, the Ichi set also includes six wooden tongs, six metal skewers, a cookbook and an electrical element for indoor electrical use.

According to Scheufler, the versatile cooking vessel has been popular as an indoor buffet service ware, particularly for appetizers and fondues. Obviously developed with fashion in consideration, the Ichi comes in decorator colors of almond, black, cobalt, blue and Oriental red.

The two Oriental grills are still not widely available in the Los Angeles area but are soon to come in specialty gourmet stores. The Tokyo Grill has a suggested retail price of $75 and is available at Lawry's Food Inc. Gift Shop (Los Angeles). The Ichi set has a suggested retail price of $150 and is available at Panache (Fullerton), Barbecues Galore (Anaheim) , Anaheim Patio and Fireside Inc. (Anaheim and Huntington Beach).

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