So you want to throw a hibachi party? First you'd think it would involve a literal hibachi – but that's not entirely true. The original hibachi is a "fire bowl" that dates back to Japan's Heian period (794-1185 AD) and was used to heat rooms and warm hands. Cooking wasn't their original purpose. Today, though, the word "hibachi" has been mistranslated by Westerners to mean any type of Japanese barbecue – whether the cooking is done with a konro, irori or shichirin grill. "It can be a bit confusing," says Kei Tokiwa from Sydney's Amuro sake bar.
The term "hibachi party" can cause head-scratching, too (especially with Americans using it to describe private teppanyaki gatherings), but, semantics aside, it essentially involves cooking over coal in a highly social way. And that's something Australians can get on board with.
"In summer, back at my hometown in Okayama, we'd always have a yakiniku party on the hibachi, inviting friends, neighbours and relatives close by," says Meg Tanaka from Melbourne's Cibi. In springtime, they'd sit under cherry blossom trees at night and grill a yakitori or yakiniku feast. "What a celebration!"
Although Tanaka describes cooking with a hibachi, she clarifies that she means a shichirin, a portable charcoal stove that's also sold at her Japanese café and store. Charring yakitori-style skewers or thin yakiniku-like cuts of meat over a barbecue are low-key but fun ways to keep everyone fed while socialising outdoors.
Tokiwa took a similar approach with friends in Kagoshima, for one of the "best" hibachi parties he's been to. They packed the shichirin in the back of the car, along with food and fireworks, and drove to the location at night. "I thought that was pretty romantic, with the sparklers," he says. They dressed up in traditional summer-friendly clothing (yukata for women, jinbei for men) and hit the beach. For similar fun, replicating their exact wardrobe isn't totally necessary – any lightweight clothing that goes over swimwear will do the trick.
Saori Tsuya, from Kazuki's restaurant in Melbourne, grew up in Fukuoka and recalls outdoor hibachi parties in summer, while winter versions took place in her dad's shed. "I vividly remember the time we grilled oysters from Nagasaki over the fire," she says. "I thought it was the best thing I'd ever tasted!"
Her husband Kazuki lived in snowy Akita, so his hibachi-party equivalent involved a warm, open-hearth irori that people sat around: they'd enjoy simmering hotpots, such as nabe with miso-glazed kiritanpo (rice sticks). The couple's contrasting experiences reflect how flexible the format can be. "It is as broad as putting on a barbecue," says Tsuya. A hibachi party on a tiny balcony can work for roommates. "Or it can be a bigger version with friends or family." Just up the amount of food accordingly. Her preference is for seafood ("prawns, oysters, scallops, clams") and vegetables ("shiitake mushrooms, shishito peppers") charred over coal. Got prep time? Tokiwa recommends soy-marinaded chicken wings and foil-wrapped garlic-butter corn as low-stress dishes that pay off over the grill.
And music-wise? He suggests city pop (which hit Japan in the 1970s and 1980s) or the relaxing sounds of the three-stringed shamisen. "I'd usually listen to J-pop for both summer and winter, so that we could sing along to it," says Mitomo Somehara, who is from Kyoto and runs various Japanese venues in Sydney with Tin Jung Shea and Chris Wu (including Yakitori Yurippi). If he was DJing your hibachi party, he'd probably drop some Radwimps, famous for their soundtrack to blockbuster anime hit, Your Name, or the J-pop stylings of Back Number and Mr. Children.
Should you bust out the karaoke for a hibachi party? Tsuya thinks if you're set on some (sake-fuelled) singing, plan it for later on. "Karaoke demands the audience to participate in the activity, like dancing, clapping, swaying, cheering – even if they are not singing. So people can't be too busy with cooking and eating when karaoke is happening." On the plus side, you won't need a smoke machine for atmosphere – you've already got a fire.
Hibachi grills to impress your nearest and dearest with
Lenoxx hibachi tabletop grill with tongs, $79 at Temple & Webster
Indulge in Japanese-style grilling anytime, anywhere. The thick clay and steel construction of this grill heats up quickly, reaching up to 350°C on both sides, and features dual charcoal chambers for simultaneous cooking. With excellent insulation, the clay firebox retains heat and the elevated steel stand minimises heat transfer. Portable and compact, this grill uses minimal space and comes with two carry handles for easy transport.
Japanese ceramic hibachi round table grill, $59 at Dick Smith
The natural construction of this handmade grill optimises heat retention while the stainless steel grates ensures quality cooking. With its portable design and elevated stand, it's a perfect pick for flavourful camping, picnics and beach days.
This article originally appeared in the May 2023 print edition of Gourmet Traveller and has been edited for online.