Teppanyaki & its meaning | The story of how it came to Japan

by Joost Nusselder | Updated on:  June 2, 2020

The world of culinary arts is surely a diverse one. There are just so many options and each a delight for your taste buds.

But few are both delicious and an art form, that’s where Japanese Teppanyaki comes into play.

If you are neither a hardcore foodie nor a culinary expert – it is very obvious that you may have never heard of the term teppanyaki.

Teppanyaki means grilled on an iron plate

It’s gaining a lot in popularity though and quickly becoming a household name in America as well as all over the world.

But trust me, you definitely came across it at least once.

This is because the presence of teppanyaki is dominant even in Western culture, even more so in Western culture than in Japan, though it still is authentic Japanese cuisine.

Did you know it’s not that old?

Let’s find about out that, and much much more in this in-depth post with all the information you’ll need on Teppanyaki and by the end of this article you will be an expert on the topic.

What does Teppanyaki mean?

Teppanyaki means “grilled on a flat iron plate”. When we break down the Japanese word teppanyaki you get: “teppan” 鉄板 which means iron plate and “yaki” 焼き simply meaning grilled.

Teppan iron plate yaki grilled food

Like yaki in yakitori, which means grilled chicken skewers as tori means bird in Japanese.

In layman’s terms, teppanyaki is a Japanese cuisine that involves the use of a flat iron griddle to cook food.

You may be thinking that this is a very simple cuisine – but you would be so wrong.

Teppanyaki is one of the most complex forms of food preparation out there and it takes high levels of skill to master this form of cooking.

Here’s the art of Teppanyaki, a video by David Tran at his Benihana restaurant:

 

A brief history of Teppanyaki

When I say history in an article involving Japanese things – you all must be thinking of ancient times where ninjas and samurais were dominant.

But this would be a very common mistake; teppanyaki cuisine is relatively new but people assume it’s ancient due to the style of preparation.

It all began in 1945 when a restaurant chain called Misono where Shigeji Fujioka introduced the concept of cooking western food on a ‘teppan’. This idea was not so popular among locals at first as they found it to be very common, below them even.

It was just not Japanese.

However, the restaurant chain observed that tourists were fascinated by this cuisine – mostly because of the knife skills that were displayed by the chefs right in front of them.

It was obvious why Shigeji made his choice, as Japan was occupied by the Americans after World War II, and there wasn’t a better place than Kobe, which was Japan’s largest port, to create a cooking style that was able to remind the soldiers of their grilled beef from home.

It was something totally new in the culinary world at that time and it wás invented by the Japanese, just not authentic traditional Japanese cuisine.

Teppanyaki has seen remarkable growth in the US in the form of large chain restaurants, which were even more common in the 80’s than they are now.

Cooks at these diners cook meat and vegetables and even rice on a sweeping iron fire sear in front of their customers.

Dinner guests can appreciate watching the masterful cooking technique with culinary specialists’ fun execution style, which can lead to some exciting experiences if you’ve never seen it up close before:

Teppanyaki was mostly popular amongst tourists

It’s like dinner ánd a show thrown together in one exciting package.

Teppanyaki restaurants in Japan though, have an exceptional one of a kind vibe compared to those in the US.

Want to get started in making Teppanyaki yourself? Check out our essentials buying guide to get you on the right track.

Teppanyaki is not Hibachi

Teppanyaki is regularly mistaken for Hibachi flame broiling.

Hibachi is different as it uses an open-grill flame broil, though teppanyaki utilizes a strong, frying pan style but large flat cooking surface.

This makes Teppanyaki appropriate for rice, onions, carrots and mushrooms which would otherwise fall through the grates.

Often when people say they’re going to a hibachi place, they actually mean that they’re going to a restaurant where the chef cooks in front of them on a Teppanyaki grill plate.

Also, a lot of people are calling it “tempanyaki” which is incorrect. They probably are mixing in tempura in the words because they ate that once at a sushi restaurant. Just know that Teppanyaki is the correct word for it.

Teppanyaki has a very interesting history, no doubt about that. However, it must be noted that this form of cooking is flourishing in modern times and is a key element in spreading Japanese culture all over the world.

The next time you see a traditionally dressed Japanese man boasting his knife skills at a restaurant, just know for sure that he is not a ninja but a great Teppanyaki chef!

Also read: the main differences between Hibachi and Teppanyaki

What is Teppanyaki cooking?

Teppanyaki refers to a dish of veggies, fish, and meat that is prepared using a large griddle that is commonly built into the table of diners.

The term teppanyaki comes from teppan, meaning iron plate, and yaki, meaning grilled, pan-fried, or broiled.

Teppanyaki is typically considered a live kitchen cooking method, wherein the chef prepares the dish in front of customers.

The guests will then choose the cooking style that they desire and select the seasoning themselves.

But you can of course cook Teppanyaki style yourself in your own home using one of the many tabletop grills or stovetop grills that are available.

The chef is trained in using the specialized cooking tools like a pro, and will do the rest of the preparations for you.

Usually, each dish is prepared one at a time in order for the patron to appreciate the taste of the food and flair of the cooking style and make a whole evening out of the dining experience.

Usually the Teppanyaki chef will prepare one dish at a time

Teppanyaki should not be regarded as similar to barbecue grill.

The latter utilizes gas flame or charcoal and has an open grate structure, while the teppanyaki plate has a flat design, which is perfect when cooking small ingredients such as little cuts of meat, chopped veggies, egg, and rice.

If you’re not sure yet what types of grill to buy, it would be great to include a teppanyaki table on your list as well.

I’ll explain the benefits of this type of cooking a bit more below.

The Beginning of Teppanyaki

Teppanyaki-style steakhouse was first served in a Japanese restaurant chain known as Misono. They originated the idea of cooking Western food on a teppan in 1945.

Teppanyaki has not been popular in Japan for centuries. This is regarded as a Japanese-style cooking method, but many people in Japan believe that this originated from Western countries.

It was only influenced by American culture, but invented in Japan.

Advantages of Using a Teppanyaki Grill

A lot of traditional barbecue grills are designed to have grate openings, making it unsuitable to cook small pieces of food.

This is certainly different from those traditional grills since this is designed with a solid flat surface, enabling the user to grill food without throwing some portions away.

The ingredients are in direct contact of the surface of the grill, making the food’s juices to also be heated and cooked and retain there flavor.

Therefore, dishes prepared using a teppanyaki grill have enhanced flavor, most especially if these are accompanied with sauces.

grill-teppanyaki-japanese

Common Ingredients used in Teppanyaki

As mentioned earlier, teppanyaki is greatly influenced by Western cooking; therefore, the ingredients used are also westernized.

These include lobster, shrimp, chicken, beef, scallop, and a wide variety of veggies.

The most common oil used in cooking the ingredients is soybean oil. Teppanyaki is also served with side dishes such as zucchini (although this is not common in Japan), mung beans, fried rice, and garlic chips. 

International restaurants also provide special sauces, but only soy sauce will be offered when trying it in Japanese restaurants.

Selecting the Right Teppanyaki Grill

There are a wide variety of teppanyaki grill models that you can see in the market these days. The quality varies according to price and specifications.

If you want a grill that can be conveniently cleaned after using it, you may select a teppanyaki grill that is made up of stainless steel.

But if you prefer a grill that has the capacity to uniformly distribute heat throughout the surface, it is best to choose those grills that are made up of cast iron.

Since heat is evenly distributed, you can be assured that your ingredients can be properly cooked.

When it comes to cooking location, there are teppanyaki grills that are suitable for outdoor use. Outdoor grill models utilize portable fuels such as liquid propane and natural gas.

The grill’s burner system is securely enclosed; thus, strong winds cannot interrupt its functionality. On the other hand, indoor models are powered by electricity, which is more convenient to use and set up.

For a good fit for you, you can check out my buying guide where I show what my choices were going forward in learning more about the culture and cooking styles of Japan, or directly look at my top list of grills.

Making Teppanyaki at home

After reading the first few parts of this article I understand you might be thinking that teppanyaki cannot be cooked at home. I’ve put a lot of emphasis on the chefs unique style and flair because that’s what people think of when talking about Teppanyaki.

But the essence of Teppanyaki is the ease in which you can cook on a large flat surface, moving around the ingredients and making sure they’re evenly cooked. You don’t need to learn the knife skills like they do at restaurants!

You are probably wondering when you get to throw knives and do all the cool stuff.

To this I would say, that if you are not an expert don’t even think of doing crazy things like that as you might seriously injure yourself.

But if you are still willing to do so, (probably because you want to show it off to your friends) then take some classes that they have on teppanyaki cooking.

For those of you who, like me, are more interested in the delicious food than the flair, here are some great recipes to try:

Teppanyaki recipes

There is a wide range of ingredients from which you can choose: beef, shrimp, lobster, chicken, scallops along with assorted vegetables.

Now although making teppanyaki at home in itself is easy, making it at restaurant level requires extensive practice.

Many Japanese restaurants feature many other forms of teppanyaki dishes like Kobe beef, Japanese noodles with sliced cabbage et cetera, but these are harder than the ones mentioned earlier.

So, if you are a rookie, I’ll advise that you start with either regular beef or chicken. For the side dishes- it is totally up to you to make the call and one of the fun things of Teppanyaki is creating all of these little dishes and serving them.

That makes Teppanyaki so great at parties. You can cook together at the table and eat lots of small dishes and flavor combinations.

Choosing a side dish largely depends on the main course you’re preparing and also personal preference of course – but if you are unsure what to serve then a mix of different vegetables is always a safe option.

Make sure, however, that you don’t overcook or undercook them as a bad side dish will ruin the main dish, no matter how good that is.

Other than that, the equipment you require for teppanyaki is the regular set of knives you have at home.

At the heart of this process is the iron girdle. So make sure you buy a good one.

The list of recipes for teppanyaki is huge – but they all share some basic steps. You can also try this Japanese teppanyaki recipe.

The first step involves skillfully slicing your main ingredients i.e. beef, chicken etc. into small portions.

This is probably the most important step in the process because if the size is not proper than the iron girdle will not be able to cook it properly resulting in an overall disaster!

Before putting your main ingredients onto the iron grill, you should prepare your side dishes- like the vegetables first.

Side dishes normally can keep for a longer period after being cooked so it’s safe to fry them before your main dish.

The final step is the cooking itself which totally depends on the flame intensity as well as your ingredients. Therefore to master it you need tons of practice.

A common misconception about teppanyaki

For all the Japanese cuisines, teppanyaki is probably the most popular one, and rightfully so!

However, this makes room for a ton of misconception. It is very common for anyone to mistake literally any Japanese cuisine for teppanyaki.

Hibachi, another Japanese cuisine, is probably the most underrated Japanese cuisine-because most of the time it is mistaken for teppanyaki!

teppanyaki vs hibachi

They have a very significant yet unnoticeable difference. Sounds weird right?

What I mean by this is that if you are a culinary expert the difference will be very obvious to you but if you’re not then you might not notice it all.

What is teppanyaki style cooking?

Teppanyaki style cooking just means the food has been prepared on a flat iron grill. In short that’s all there is to it. What most people mean additionally is that it’s made by a chef with impressive knife skills, or that it’s made with a particular sauce for flavor.

The term hibachi literally translates to fire bowl. This is because the grill used for hibachi cuisines is a very unique cylindrical vessel with fire proof lining.

They put charcoal on it and then cook their food in it. For teppanyaki, as we know already an iron griddle is used.

The ingredients of teppanyaki and hibachi are very similar, which perhaps is one of the reasons that this confusion arises.

The cooking process yields completely different tastes. I personally prefer teppanyaki but this is subject to my personal preference.

Other than that, both hibachi and teppanyaki are more than just cuisines in Japan. They are a form of art and both deserves equal appreciation.

Teppanyaki has made a greater impact because it normally works with Japanese steaks and we all know that Japanese steaks are the best in the world!

Teppanyaki is easy to make at home relative to hibachi and also the availability of the iron griddles is more common than the special cooking vessel required for hibachi.

Final thoughts

So, now you probably know a lot about teppanyaki, and you may be wondering how you can implement this knowledge.

There are many ways to do this:

There are people that say teppanyaki isn’t good and that’s completely fine because food is like music- everyone has their own opinion and everyone’s opinion needs to be respected.

As for myself, I cannot imagine a weekend without my teppanyaki.

Teppanyaki restaurant chains are very common in the US, you can find tons of them in every major city. Teppanyaki is also not so expensive like other foreign cuisines so it’s an affordable night out.

Teppanyaki is an excellent example of cultural integration- and definitely a delicious one!

I hope this article has helped you understand what teppanyaki really is and now you can probably be a ‘ninja’ in your own kitchen to make delicious food.

You will be amazed once you try teppanyaki, I can assure you.

Joost Nusselder, the founder of Bite My Bun is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new food with Japanese food at the heart of his passion, and together with his team he's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with recipes and cooking tips.