Hibachi is a word that is now in common usage, especially for those who like Japanese food and dining out, or even trying their own hand at grilling Japanese-style at home.
But like many foreign words, it’s true meaning has seemingly been lost in translation or it’s simply been co-opted. Hibachi is one such Japanese term that is often used incorrectly outside of Japan.
The term was first exported for marketing Japanese-style grills abroad after WWII and has since taken on a life of its own. In North America, for example, hibachi is used as a “catch-all” term for any kind of Japanese grilling. Hibachi or hibachi-style has come to mean grilled Japanese-style cuisine, the grills they are cooked on, and even the restaurants themselves.
Interestingly though, none of these co-opted usages of hibachi are correct.
So, just what is hibachi then?
What is hibachi?
Hibachi literally means ‘fire bowl’ (火鉢 – ひばち) and refers to an open-topped pot (usually round or cylindrical in shape) or a box made of (or lined with) fire-proof material into which charcoal and ash is placed for the purpose of heating a room. It is believed to date back to the Heian period (794 to 1185).
This traditional heating device ranged from vase-like pots all the way up to hefty and elaborate furniture pieces, around which one could warm their hands and feet, as well as heat water for various uses around the home before the advent of electricity. These hibachi “tables” served as a place to gather, entertain and stay warm. They were not originally intended for cooking at all, which makes using the term for Japanese grilling all the more peculiar.
However, at least by the late 1800s, it is believed hibachi may have also been used to grill traditional Japanese snacks, a natural complement to the tea being made in the teapots we can see in examples of hibachi from this time. I once visited a 150-year-old home turned Airbnb in the city of Toyota, where there was a hibachi for guests to gather around in the dining space (particularly lovely for our winter visit), the usage of which extended to grilling dango and even the opportunity to make a Japanese hot pot for dinner on it.
While certainly food can be cooked on a hibachi (it does feature charcoal as its heating source after all), it is definitely a slower and more gentle affair than other more flamboyant Japanese cooking techniques. Think a pot of tea or a soup and the ability to keep it hot until it is consumed. The idea of “actively” cooking on one such as tossing food or cooking steak in flames just doesn’t work with a hibachi filled with ash and without a grill top.
With the advent of modern heating and cooking technology, true hibachi like this are few and far between, and when they are still in use, they are mostly to showcase “traditional Japan” for visitors.
Hibachi vs Shichirin
What many people are thinking of when they use the word ‘hibachi’ is actually shichirin (七輪 – しちりん), which refers to a small charcoal BBQ grill, for around 2-3 people.
The bottom of a traditional shichirin is very reminiscent of the round hibachi pots of old, but has a metal grill placed on top, and is intended for cooking. The best are made with volcanic diatomaceous earth, unparalleled for its ability to retain and evenly disperse heat.
This traditional style is very much still in use today, however more modern-day shichirin also exist. These can be larger and any shape, and look more like the portable BBQ grills popular in the West. At restaurants, they can also be built into tables.
Essentially any small grill with a metal grate can be called a shichirin, as long as it uses charcoal as a heat source. The word shichirin actually means ‘seven rin’ – the archaic cost of a batch of cooking charcoal during the Edo period (1603-1867), when it is believed these grills were first introduced. Similar looking grills that use gas and electricity are not called shichirin, but are instead called konro (コンロ).
Remember that time Ariana Grande accidentally got ‘shichirin’ tattooed on her palm thinking it meant ‘7 rings’ like her hit single? Another reason to know your Japanese grills! And probably never to get a kanji tattoo, period, unless you really know your stuff.
Some reports suggest that the reason why these Japanese charcoal grills have been incorrectly named abroad is because shichirin was deemed too difficult to pronounce outside of Japan and that is why hibachi was chosen as a kind of ‘near enough is good enough’ replacement for foreign export.
Hibachi vs Teppan
Teppan (鉄板 – てっぱん) is another style of Japanese grill that is often misinterpreted as hibachi. Teppan is a flat iron griddle common at restaurants where the food (called teppanyaki) is cooked by the chef in front of customers. In such establishments, watching the food being cooked, often quite theatrically, is part of the experience of dining there.
A teppan is often built behind a central bar-like countertop so diners can watch on from the surrounding bar stools as chefs showcase their impressive spatula and knife skills. Sometimes a teppan is built into individual tables for a more intimate show and other times so that patrons can cook their own meals. This is popular at specialized okonomiyaki restaurants in Japan.
If you’ve ever eaten at a so-called ‘Hibachi steakhouse,’ it was most likely a teppanyaki restaurant.
Japanese grilling restaurants in Japan
With the term having already cemented itself within Japanese dining culture abroad, we’re unlikely to see hibachi renamed to reflect the actual grilling technique being used. That said, visitors to Japan should note that using the word in-country may cause confusion, although most people would probably be able to guess what you mean.
But to make things easier and demonstrate your knowledge of Japanese grills, if you’re wanting to cook your own food on a shichirin charcoal grill, ask for a yakiniku restaurant, and if you’d prefer the audible and visual flair of metal tools hitting the hotplate and a chef preparing your meal in front of you, seek out a teppanyaki restaurant.
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Jessica Korteman is a seasoned travel writer from Melbourne, Australia. She has spent a decade living, working and traveling in Japan, and specializes in Japanese culture, festivals and events, and travel destinations both on and off the beaten path throughout the country.
She is the Founder and Editor of Japanese Food Guide.