An Introduction of Japanese BBQ
By Mamiko Kim
Is there something not so American about BBQ? From hamburgers and hot dogs on the 4th of July to all-day smoked brisket and whole hog affairs, barbecuing has an earned spot in American cuisine. 7 out of 10 Americans own a grill or roaster, and 79% of them say that they grill at least once a week. Based on these statistics, it seems we must have some BBQ lovers among our readership!
Of course, BBQ is not unique to the United States! Every culture has their own delicious iteration of grilling, utilizing fire and smoke. If you’re like me, you want to taste them all, and perhaps you’re looking for what to try next. Please allow me to recommend Japanese BBQ as a place to start on your BBQ-tasting journey.
What is Japanese BBQ?
There are actually many types of BBQing in Japan, differentiated by the method of cooking and what is usually prepared. For example, Irori is a traditional sunken, stone-lined hearth that once was in many homes, and was used to cook and grill a communal meal of local ingredients. Most houses no longer have them, and you would need to go to a specialized restaurant to have this style of BBQ, typically shelling out a bit more money as a luxury experience.
Chef Masahi Yamada's Irori BBQ restaurant specailizes in wild ingredients harvested and hunted in the nearby mountains (Eater)
Robatayaki refers specifically to traditional charcoal grilling, and comes from the culture of ancient Hokkaido fishermen who would place a fire-resistant stone or wood box heated with binchotan coals on their oars, beginning to grill their catch out on the water so that they’d have perfectly cooked fish as soon as they returned to shore. Today, some traditional Robota restaurants continue to serve grilled robatayaki fish on oars. 1
A Robotayaki restaurant in New York City (First We Feast)
There is also Kushiyaki, or meat on bamboo skewers grilled over charcoal. This option is much more economical, and it will be guaranteed to be on the menu at your local izakaya bar, which often serves small dishes that pair well with sake and beer. Of kushiyaki, yakitori (grilled chicken) is the most popular and can be found commonly at street stalls and at family BBQ gatherings.
Izakaya Iseya serves cheap yakitori in a historic location (Eat Your Kimchi Studio)
However, Yakiniku is debatably what first comes to mind for Japanese people when they think of eating out for BBQ. During the 1920s, while meat was rationed in Japan, Korean immigrants began selling grilled meat entrails on the black market, which then followed by the opening of eateries. By the 1960s, Japan had recovered economically, more people could afford to eat meat, and restaurants styled after these early establishments began popping up all over Japan. In this way, yakiniku is an immigrant success story that locals have adapted to fit their own tastes. 2
From 2:35 into the video, Mark Weins'eats kobe beef at a Yakiniku restaurant (Mark Weins)
How is Japanese Yakiniku different from Korean BBQ?
When you enter a Yakiniku or Korean BBQ restaurant, at first, these two establishments may seem similar. However, there are a few key differences between the two that make them unique from one another, the biggest of these being the intention behind the food. If there were one word to describe the Japanese BBQ flavor aesthetic, it would be “clean.” Care is given to the quality of the ingredients being prepared, and beef (particularly prized wagyu) is the feature on many menus. Meats are mostly left unmarinated, with much of the richness in flavor coming from having a high quality product. Unlike Korean BBQ, which provides sides of pickled and other prepared vegetables, called banchan, Japanese BBQ more commonly will provide vegetables for roasting along with the meat. This better matches the flavor profile, and keeps the palate unmuddled. Dipping sauces are provided at the table, typically a sweet soy sauce based one, a citrus flavored one, and something spicy, but each establishment might have their own unique offering. These serve to compliment the flavor of the meat and vegetables, and it’s also fun to see how each sauce pairs with whatever you’re eating. Overall, appreciating each ingredient is meant to be the intended experience.
Korean BBQ, delicious in its own right, prizes bold flavors. This can be tasted in both the vegetable sides, as mentioned above, but also in the meats served. Pork, is often the more common meat of choice in Korean BBQ, and cuts of meat are marinated in various sauces, which can be as simple as jumulleok (short steak marinated with sesame oil, salt and pepper) or use more ingredients like bulgogi (meat marinated in sugar, ginger, soy sauce, sesame oil, pepper, garlic and scallions), so each bite is a flavor bomb. However, the quality of meat is less important than in Yakiniku. Gopchang, or grilled entrails of cows or pigs, are a commonly offered menu item. Ultimately, robust flavor is the purpose of eating Korean BBQ.
Another big difference between the two is how it is served. At Yakiniku establishments, the guest is the one grilling ingredients, while at Korean BBQ restaurants, attendants walk around from table-to-table to turn over and serve the meat. The only explanation I’ve found for this difference is that Japanese like to have the option to grill the meat to their liking. This is fitting to the intention mentioned earlier, with the flavor of each ingredient being such an integral part of enjoying the meal. 3
A map of Gyukaku restaurant locations worldwide
Is there a Japanese BBQ restaurant in the D.C. area?
I asked my Japanese colleague this question, and he named Gyukaku as a place he’d recommend as an authentic experience in the greater D.C. area. So, during the recent snow storm, I packed up my family and drove to Arlington to check it out (purely for this article, of course, and not because I was craving yakiniku).
We were greeted at the door with a hearty “Irashaimase” (Welcome) and led to our table which had an inlaid grill. You are able to choose items ala carte or from a course menu, which we settled on. Platters of various meat and vegetables arrived timed with our eating speed, and the server was attentive in explaining recommended ways to grill each type of item. A bonus was that the staff were very friendly and kind to our fussy toddler, who needed to walk around the restaurant part-way through the meal.
One thing I hadn’t considered till I was there was that my toddler could eat a lot more of the items being served than when we had been to Korean BBQ (which we had done recently for someone’s birthday). Because you are grilling and adding sauces to your liking, the meal is much more customizable, which meant that we could be careful in how we served her items, while also being able to enjoy the spicy Sriracha-based sauce ourselves. She could also eat all of the vegetables for this reason as well. It felt very much like a complete meal. Overall, parents and child left feeling very full and satisfied!
I hope you give Japanese BBQ a try. It’s a great start to a BBQ-tasting experience with its focus on the flavor of each meat itself, and its versatility caters to a wide-range of palates and preferences. It’d be a great meal to eat with friends or family, whether out or at home. I have no doubt that it will be a new favorite meal for you and your loved ones.
One family's yakiniku meal at home.