One evening in Tokyo, my husband and I happened upon a very small sushi bar. We were warmly greeted by the chef. He was the only person there.

After a few delicious slices of fish I mentioned clams. "Hamiguri?" I ventured. With a wide smile the chef produced a grill no larger than my hand and cooked one clam in its shell. It was wonderful, moist and succulent.

Later, after a long dusty ride to a park high above the city of Kamakura in Japan, I spotted a man squatting beside a low fire. He was grilling little pastries filled with mysterious, wild mountain greens. I thought he was cooking for himself and the young boy beside him. Then I happily discovered that his operation was an al fresco extension of a tiny, rustic restaurant at the park entrance. The combination of the golden, grilled dough and fresh vegetables is unforgettable.

The Japanese call it robatayaki, which means "grilled by the fireside."

At Tako Grill, a Japanese restaurant in Bethesda, vegetables and seafood are turned on an open fire at the end of the sushi bar and there is a separate a la carte robatayaki menu for the mostly diminutive dishes. I love the small whole fish that are skewered so that, when served, your dinner appears to have been caught mid-stream.

One perfect zucchini is sliced diagonally and so lightly cooked that no marks from the grill mar its surface. Each tender slice absorbs just the right amount of its subtle ginger sauce.

A lot of the appeal of Japanese grilled foods is that there are no great slabs of meat, hunks of fish or halves of chickens. Smaller creatures and cuts allow a more attractive presentation. They are also easier to cook and, after a little exposure to these dishes, one begins to wonder why we cook so much, so large, so long on the American outdoor stove.

Sauces and condiments also enhance the dining experience. A ponsu or sesame sauce or simply bottled soy sauce is often used for moisture and flavor. Sometimes the sauce is used for basting while the food grills. Other times, the cooked food is dipped in the sauce at the table. A bit of fresh fish roe or ginger alongside may tempt your taste buds. Perhaps some fresh pickled vegetables and a few edible flower petals, shizo leaves or radish sprouts for added interest.

Most of the preparation can be done long before serving and, since the actual grilling is easy and uncomplicated, the meal has a comfortable and leisurely pace.

Labor intensive? Somewhat. Worth it? Absolutely.

Make it easier for the cook and start the meal with carryout sushi rolls from a local establishment. Follow that with a simple grilled chicken kebab (yakitori), rice and a salad.

Or integrate the unfamiliar into your menus gradually. Restaurants here and around the world are priding themselves on their cross-cultural meals. They work just as well at home. How about a little macaroni with that teriyaki?


(4 to 6 servings)

Yakitori, or grilled chicken, is one of the most popular foods of Japan. It is served in homes, from street stalls and in special Yakitori restaurants. Cook skewers of green peppers and onions alongside the chicken and serve with rice for a balanced meal.

The Japanese prefer chicken thighs for this dish because they are moister and more flavorful than other cuts.

1 1/2 pounds boneless chicken thighs

1/2 cup sake 1/4 cup mirin*

1 cup soy sauce 1/4 cup sugar

Wooden skewers soaked in water for 30 minutes

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Cut the chicken meat (with the skin) into 1-inch pieces. Cover and refrigerate.

In a medium saucepan over medium heat, combine the sake, mirin, soy sauce and sugar and cook, stirring, until the sugar is dissolved, about 1 minute. Reduce the heat to low and continue to cook until the liquid is reduced to about 1 1/3 cups, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat; set aside to cool. Strain the sauce; cover and refrigerate.

Prepare a charcoal fire or preheat the grill on high.

Thread the chicken pieces onto the skewers so they barely touch. Do not crowd the chicken or it will not cook evenly.

Pour half of the sauce into a shallow roasting pan that is large enough to accommodate the skewers; cover and refrigerate the remaining sauce.

Grill the chicken until it is lightly browned on 1 side, 2 to 3 minutes. With heatproof gloves, remove the skewers from the grill and roll them in the pan to moisten the chicken with the sauce; return to the grill. Moisten the chicken this way 3 or 4 times and grill until cooked through, about 10 minutes total. Discard the used basting sauce.

Serve the chicken skewers with the reserved sauce on the side.

* Note: Mirin, sweet rice wine, is available in Asian markets and some supermarkets.

Per serving (based on 6): 236 calories, 21 gm protein, 5 gm carbohydrates, 14 gm fat, 94 mg cholesterol, 4 gm saturated fat, 778 mg sodium, trace dietary fiber

Stuffed Squid With Lime Sauce

(4 servings)

Okay, call it calamari if it sells better in your family, but do try this recipe. You can put it together in about half an hour, and it can be prepared up to 4 hours before serving time. Small squid are needed for this dish and, to be sure that they do not fall into the coals, I cook them on a perforated metal sheet laid over the charcoal grill. Or you may place a second wire rack across the one on your grill, or just be careful.

Cooked frozen shrimp sold with tails on are ideal for this recipe. The small cooked shrimp found in area stores may also be used.

1/4 pound shrimp, fresh, shelled and deveined or cooked, frozen and defrosted

1 egg white

6 ounces shiitake mushrooms, stems removed, caps sliced

1 medium carrot, finely chopped

1 scallion, white and tender green parts, finely chopped

1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger root

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 pound small squid tubes*

Oil for the grill

Toothpicks soaked in water for 30 minutes

For the sauce:

2 scallions, white and tender green parts, thinly sliced

1 1/2 tablespoons lime juice

2 tablespoons mirin**

2 tablespoons sake

If using uncooked shrimp, bring a pot of water to a boil. Boil the shrimp until cooked through, 30 to 60 seconds, depending on the size. Remove and set aside to cool. Finely chop the cooked shrimp.

In a small bowl, lightly beat the egg white. Stir in the shrimp, mushrooms, carrot, scallion, ginger and soy sauce. Mix well.

Oil the grill rack and set it several inches above the heat source. Prepare a charcoal fire or preheat the grill on high.

Stuff the squid tubes with the shrimp mixture, leaving 1/2 to 1 inch of each end of the tube unfilled. Carefully pinch the unfilled ends of the tube together and fasten with a toothpick.

For the sauce: In a small bowl, mix together the scallions, lime juice, mirin and sake; set aside.

Grill the stuffed squid tubes, carefully turning the tubes with tongs or chopsticks so as not to pierce them, until firm and brown on all sides, 10 to 15 minutes total. Transfer the tubes to a cutting board and slice into thin rounds, if desired, or serve whole. Serve the sauce drizzled over the top or on the side.

* Note: Packags of frozen squid tubes are available at many supermarkets. Purchase squid tubes that run 4 to 6 to the pound; larger tubes will not cook properly. If the wing-like appendages are still on the tubes, remove them for more attractive presentation. You may purchase whole squid and separate the tubes from the tentacles and grill the tentacles separately or reserve for another use.

** Note: Mirin, sweet rice wine, is available at Asian markets and some supermarkets.

Per serving: 195 calories, 26 gm protein, 14 gm carbohydrates, 3 gm fat, 307 mg cholesterol, 1 gm saturated fat, 380 mg sodium, 1 gm dietary fiber

Grilled Zucchini With Ginger Sauce

(4 servings)

At Tako Grill, Fernando Dias makes the ginger sauce that graces many of their robatayaki dishes. The sauce recipe can easily be doubled or tripled and is very good on the grilled zucchini, but try it with grilled asparagus, shiitake mushrooms, eggplant slices or whole scallions, as well. You can cook any of them on a perforated metal sheet laid over the charcoal grill to be sure that the slices don't fall into the fire. Or you may place a second wire rack across the one on your grill, or just be careful.

3 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce

1/4 cup water

3 tablespoons mirin*

1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger root

Small piece kombu kelp* (optional)

Oil for the grill

4 medium zucchini (about 1 pound)

For the ginger sauce: In a small saucepan, mix together the soy sauce, water, mirin, ginger and kombu kelp and bring the mixture to a boil. Remove from the heat. Carefully remove the kombu (if using) and discard. Set the mixture aside to cool. Strain. Cover and refrigerate for up to 1 month.

Oil the grill rack and set it several inches above the heat source. Prepare a charcoal fire or preheat the grill on high.

Slice each squash diagonally about 1/4-inch thick, keeping the slices together. (You may wish to insert toothpicks through the first few slices on each end.) With a large spatula, transfer the squash to the grill, keeping their slices together. As you lower the vegetable to the grill, the slices will flatten slightly like fallen dominoes.

Cover the zucchini (with a pot lid or heavy foil if you do not have a grill cover) and grill until the zucchini is just tender, about 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, spread about 2 tablespoons Ginger Sauce on each serving plate.

With the spatula, remove the zucchini from the grill and carefully rest it on the prepared serving plates. Serve immediately.

* Note: Mirin (sweet rice wine) and kombu (a type of kelp or seaweed) are available at Asian markets and some supermarkets.

Per serving: 55 calories, 2 gm protein, 12 gm carbohydrates, trace fat, 0 mg cholesterol, trace saturated fat, 915 mg sodium, 2 gm dietary fiber

Stark Eye of Tuna With Ponzu Sauce

(4 servings)

In our family, seared tuna is a hands-down favorite. Usually, it is prepared just before serving so that the outside of the fish is warm, while the inside is still quite cool. However, it is good when prepared ahead if you thrust the grilled fillet of fish into icy water, dry it and sprinkle it with freshly squeezed lemon juice before storing it in the coldest part of the refrigerator. Do not prepare more than a few hours before serving.

Instead of tuna, you can use a tender cut of beef.

When planning in advance, remember that the ponzu sauce must be prepared at least 24 hours prior to serving.

1/4 cup shiso* (perilla), mint or basil leaves, cut in a fine julienne

1/4 cup minced fresh ginger root

1/4 cup finely chopped scallions, white and tender green parts only

1 pound tuna, about 2 inches thick, preferably in 1 piece (select tuna without dark red streaks or silvery membrane)

Ponzu Sauce (recipe follows)

Place the shiso, mint or basil leaves in cold water for about 30 seconds. Drain the leaves; discard the soaking liquid.

In a small bowl, mix the shiso, mint or basil with the ginger and scallions. Cover and refrigerate until served, up to about 1 hour.

Prepare a charcoal fire or preheat the grill.

Grill the fish, turning as necessary, until all sides are seared and gray-white, about 10 minutes total for medium-rare.

Remove the fish to a cutting board and slice the tuna into 1/4-inch slices.

Arrange the slices on individual serving plates and scatter the shiso mixture over the slices. Serve with the Ponzu sauce.

*Note: Shiso, or perilla, is an aromatic green leaf that belongs to the mint family. It is available summer through fall at many Asian markets.

Per serving: 169 calories, 28 gm protein, 10 gm carbohydrates, 1 gm fat, 51 mg cholesterol, trace saturated fat, 1,082 mg sodium, trace dietary fiber

Ponzu Sauce

(Makes about 1 cup)

1/3 cup mirin*

1/2 cup lemon juice

1/2 cup dark soy sauce

2 tablespoons tamari* (may substitute soy sauce)

1/3 cup rice vinegar

About 3 tablespoons ( 1/6 ounce) dried bonito flakes (optional)**

1-inch piece kombu kelp (optional)**

In a small saucepan, boil the mirin for about 2 minutes. Remove from the heat.

In a small bowl, stir together all of the ingredients. Cover and refrigerate for 24 hours. Strain the sauce; cover and refrigerate until serving time. The ponzu sauce may be stored, covered, for several months in the refrigerator.

*Note: Mirin (sweet rice wine) and tamari (wheat-free soy sauce that is thicker than regular soy sauce) are available at Asian markets and some supermarkets.

**Note: Bonito flakes (fish flakes) and kombu (a type of kelp or seaweed) are optional in this sauce. They are available at Asian markets and some supermarkets, including Fresh Fields.

Per 1-tablespoon serving: 24 calories, 1 gm protein, 4 gm carbohydrates, trace fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 0 gm saturated fat, 591 mg sodium, trace dietary fiber

Jane Adams Finn is a legal consultant and an avid cook living in Chevy Chase.