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‘Hibachi’ Probably Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Does

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).

An orange-colored hibachi pot sits on the floor next to a chest of drawers in the corner of a traditional Japanese room.
This orange-colored pot, strikingly similar to a flower pot, is a hibachi – a traditional Japanese heating device filled with charcoal and ash. Photo used with permission © Sebastian Herrmann.
A hibachi sits in the middle of a traditional Japanese tatami room with a teapot and metal tongs inside the inner chamber.
Hibachi can also be set into furniture pieces like this.

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.

A wooden hibachi table with chairs around it. Set into the middle of the table is a metal box filled with warm ash and in the center is a small pile of burning charcoal with a tea pot on top.
Another example of a hibachi – this one higher off the ground with bench and chair seating around 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.

Two long mochi on wooden sticks are resting atop two metal bars on the hibachi, being grilled over the hot charcoal and ash.
Traditional Japanese snacks being grilled over a hibachi.

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.

A clay pot with charcoal inside and meat cooking on the metal grill placed on top (this type of Japanese grill is known as a shichirin in Japanese). Photo by Saki Inoue.
A traditional shichirin. Photo used with permission © Saki Inoue.

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.

A Japanese shichirin grill with onion, eggplant and skewered meat grilling on top.
This type of charcoal grill is also a shichirin. Photo used with permission © Saki Inoue.

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.

A photo posted to Ariana Grande's Instagram that shows her left palm facing the camera with the sleeve of her brown sweater covering the bottom part of her hand and a tattoo of two Japanese characters that say 'shichirin' (meaning a Japanese BBQ grill) at the top of her palm under her index and middle fingers.
Ariana Grande’s ‘shichirin’ tattoo.

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 Japanese chef with a white chef's jacket and tall hat is seasoning teppanyaki vegetables over a Japanese teppan grill.
A Japanese chef prepares teppanyaki on a teppan grill.

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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