Japan has a real love for going to restaurants and cooking food themselves. I’m not exactly sure why (isn’t the point of going out to eat so that you don’t have to cook?), but it’s certainly a lot of fun. With a group of friends, shared dishes, and the possibility of lighting your sleeves on fire, it’s really neat to try cooking delicious food yourself without the hassle of prep work.
Although you can rarely find these types of restaurants in America (I’m sure people are afraid of lawsuits), there are several types of cook-it-yourself dining experiences in Japan. Today, I want to show you Japanese yakiniku (grilled meat), and introduce you to one of my favorite meals while I lived in Tokyo.
At yakiniku restaurants, guests sit at tables with a small charcoal grill built into the tabletop. It’s not hot when you when you sit down, so no one risks setting themselves on fire. Later on, your server will spray the grill with oil and light the flames so that it’s hot by the time your dishes come out of the kitchen.
Yakiniku menus offer a variety of meats and vegetables that are seasoned or marinated in many delicious sauces. If you want a little of everything, a lot of restaurants offer a set meal to share, often with steamed rice. If you’re more adventurous or know exactly what you want, you can also order items a la carte.
Some of the most popular meat choices include kalbi (boneless short rib), harami (tender beef from around the diaphragm), beef tongue, chicken, various seafood, and pork belly. Mushrooms, onions, kabocha squash, corn, and peppers are also commonly available for vegetables. If you want to get a little more daring, you can also find a lot of organ meat as well- including heart, liver, intestine, tail, tripe, and stomach.
The meats and vegetables come to your table raw and cut into bite-sized pieces. The server will tell you how long each meat needs to cook, and then it’s time to start grilling. Using tongs, you put the raw meat onto the grill and cook to your heart’s content. There are usually several different dipping sauces to choose from on the side, including ponzu (citrus soy sauce) and spicy chili oil.
Most restaurants will also offer steamed rice or other side dishes to help fill you up. I enjoyed marinated bean sprouts and seaweed with one meal, while another yakiniku restaurant with a Korean influence had a vegetable omelet, kimchi, and salad.
Japanese yakiniku is a ton of fun if you don’t mind a little work, and extremely delicious. All the meat is super tender and marinated in amazing sauces, from miso to barbeque.
And you know what’s awesome? You don’t need to go to Japan anymore to enjoy this awesome experience! Gyu Kaku, a Japanese yakiniku chain I actually ate at in Tokyo, has restaurants all across the US! There’s one right down the street from where I live in Boston, and it’s just as delicious as the yakiniku in Japan. Plus, they offer s’mores as dessert…it’s seriously too hard to resist.
I hope I made you hungry today! Would you try yakiniku, or are you afraid of cooking your own food?