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 heat. 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 heated metal plate. It's 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 cooking 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 good, grilled steak cut into thin strips and served tossed with vegetables. Most Japanese dishes start with thin strips of meat, whether it's beef, chicken or anything else. Hot and fast is how these meats are meant to be cooked.
The secret to really great Japanese food is something lost on most 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 over power 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 our selves 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 Setsuko Yoshizuka's fantastic Japanese Cuisine Website.