Leaving aside the higher art forms of sushi and sashimi, Japanese home cooking can be a flash in the pan. A variety of dishes can be prepared at_ in fact, on_the dinner table, which whets the appetite rather than wilting the chef, and returns supper to a social occasion.
Considering that beef has only been part of their diet for a century or so, the Japanese have raised the steaks by perfecting the tabletop teppanyaki ("iron sheet grill") technique. Despite, or more likely because of, its East-meets-West ecumenicalism, teppanyaki cooking has taken hold all over the country: There's one Japanese steakhouse off the Santa Monica pier, and another hidden behind wrought-iron gates in a courtyard of New Orleans' French Quarter.
The new "Benihana Home Cooking Table," produced under the patent-approving eye of Benihana franchise founder Rocky Aoki, may become this year's trendy kitchen gift, following the fondue pot of the '60s, the wok of the '70s and the food processor of the New Prosperity.
It has a cast-aluminum surface (about one foot by two), with three temperature-controlled areas: one for searing (450 degrees), cooking (375 degrees) and holding (300 degrees). It makes quick work of steaks or fillets, chicken, shrimp, scallops and vegetables (julienne zucchini and onions, sliced mushrooms and bean sprouts, sprinkled with salt, lemon juice and sake). It also tends to turn food preparation into a performance.
If the Benihana teppanyaki is too pricy at $150, Japanese nabemono (one-pot) cooking is a simple but splendid way to rehabilitate the shabby garret/student dorm image of the hot plate.
Although a one-pot dinner from a portable coil may sound downscale, it is the epitome of Japanese hospitality: Inviting guests to dip chopsticks into the same dish is a proffer of affection. Either sukiyaki (beef and vegetables simmered in sauce) or shabu-shabu (a lighter version cooked in water and then dipped into flavoring sauces) can be neatly done up in a large, heavy cast-iron skillet -- or as a last resort, in an electric skillet.
For sukiyaki, give each guest a small, high-sided bowl with a raw egg beaten in the bottom to glaze the cooked food (and if you like, a bowl of rice on the side). For shabu-shabu, each diner gets his own bowls of dipping sauces -- ponzu, sesame seed, and daikon (giant white radish) grated with red pepper flakes and rice vinegar.
They use similar ingredients, one-stop shoppable at an oriental market: paper-thin sliced beef, wedged and sliced Chinese cabbage, scallions, white or shiitake mushrooms, sliced white onions, chrysanthemum leaves or watercress, cubed tofu (soybean curd) and fat udon noodles, cooked and drained. Arrange the ingredients on platters so they can be picked up with chopsticks. The traditional ratio of vegetales to meat is two to one.
For sukiyaki, melt a piece of suet in the skillet to grease it, add a serving of each vegetable and some noodles and pour in an inch or so of sauce; bring to simmer and lay slices of beef on top. Each diner uses his chopsticks to transfer food to his bowl, one mouthful at a time. Add food as needed, and diluted sake as the sauce boils away.
"Shabu-shabu" is the sound meat makes when swept across boiling water. It cooks very quickly, so each diner should shabu his own. Again, the food is transferred directly to the individual dipping bowls. Hold the udon out till last, and when the food has all been cooked, and the water transformed into broth, reheat the noodles and then divvy up the soup. Everything is used up -- the very model of Japanese efficiency. SAUCES Sukiyaki sauce: Mix 1 cup water or dashi (Japanese fish stock), 1/2 cup soy sauce, 1/2 cup sake (more for the pot), and sugar to taste. Shabu-shabu sesame dip:
Brown about 3 ounces white sesame seeds in a dry, heavy frying pan. Grind or crush the seeds and add 6 tablespoons soy sauce, 2 tablespoons mirin (oriental cooking wine), 1 tablespoon sugar, 2 tablespoons of sake and 1/2 to 3/4 cup dashi or light chicken stock. Ponzu sauce:
This sauce is composed of equal parts soy and citrus juices (fresh lemon, lemon and lime, lemon and orange, etc.), plus optional flavorings of rice vinegar, mirin, chopped scallion or grated fresh ginger.