Sensuous Sumiyaki

One of the things I like about Tokyo — and Japan, in general — is you will find different restaurants catering to specific styles of food preparation. Here in America, we have sushi bars and teppanyaki table grills (given a P.T. Barnumesque American twist where chefs flip shrimp into the air, catch eggs in their hats and make rice volcanoes). In Japan, you have ramen joints, tempura bars, shabu shabu houses, unagi (eel) restaurants, skewered chicken innards cafes and countless other establishments catering to a single style of cooking or eating. There are even, unfortunately, restaurants specializing in whale.


With our large Japanese population in Los Angeles, more and more of these diverse eateries are appearing. A few years back we discovered a massive shogunate of a restaurant on Beverly Hills’ Restaurant Row — every piece of aged wood imported from Japan and constructed without nails by traditional miyadaiku carpenters. In a curious bit of Hollywood theater, there was even a man in a glass case making hand-made soba noodles. But the most impressive part was the massive grill bar downstairs, where granite-faced chefs stood amidst columns of smoking cooking skewers of meat and vegetables of over imported Japanese hardwood: sumiyaki.

At Gonpachi, they skewered just about anything and everything and cooked it over the hardwood. There was chicken and green onions, chicken meatballs, chicken skin, duck breast, steak, pork belly, asparagus wrapped in bacon, shrimp, mushrooms, shishito peppers, even fois gras. Different salts, sprinkles and sauces brought out the best in each offering. At home, I try to keep it simple. Simple is often best — and easier for you! I like to do chicken thighs (dark meat chicken works much better for sumiyaki than light), okra, a bit of good quality steak, some shiitake mushrooms and some of those fabulous Japanese shishito peppers. And if you’ve got the patience, you’ve never tasted anything so good as that asparagus with bacon. If you can’t cook over hardwood like hickory or oak, add some wood chips soaked in water to your grill. I’ve also included recipes for a couple of easy, fantastic dipping sauces.

Sumiyaki is about the best dinner party food you can imagine. You can even sit outside on a warm fall evening around a small grill and let each person grill their own skewers. You might see Japanese restaurants offering similarly grilled foods referred to as robata, kushi or hibachi. You can refer to it as whatever you want, I just call it delicious. Enjoy.

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serves 4

1/2 lb. ribeye or other good steak, sliced 1/4 inch thick
1/2 lb. chicken thighs, cut into chunks
8 green onions, white and light green parts only
1/4 lb. okra
4 thick asparagus, cut into 4 segments each
4 slices bacon
1/4 lb. shishito or padrón peppers
1/4 lb. shiitake mushrooms
1/4 cup soy sauce
1 tsp. minced ginger
1 tsp. sugar
grapeseed or canola oil
one lemon, quartered
fleur de sel or Maldon salt
1/2 teaspoon powdered dashi broth (optional)
bamboo skewers

Soak skewers in water for one hour. Place chicken chunks, soy sauce, ginger and sugar in a bowl and marinate for one hour.

Cut green onion portions into 2-inch segments (you should get 2-3 per onion). Begin skewering: Place 4-5 okra on each skewer until you have 4 skewers. Do the same with the shishito peppers. Thread skewer through several points in the beef slices until secure. Skewer chicken, with 2-3 pieces of green onion interspersed between chicken chunks on each skewer. Compose the bacon and asparagus skewers, beginning by poking one end of a slice of uncooked bacon onto the skewer; add a segment of asparagus, and then turn the bacon over it and push the skewer through; add another segment of asparagus, and repeat until you’ve got 4 pieces of asparagus per skewer with the bacon weaving between them. Brush all skewers lightly with grapeseed or canola oil. Sprinkle with dashi powder, if you’ve got it, or a little kosher salt.

Heat your grill. If you’re grilling on gas, place a piece of foil above the flames and below the grill grates for your wood chips. If you’re grilling on charcoal, your chips can go directly on the coals. Once chips have begun to smoke, place skewers on the grill and close the cover. Cook for 1 minute and remove cover to make sure no skewers are getting burned on hot spots. You’ll want to move the skewers around and turn over frequently as needed while they cook. Total cooking time will be 5-10 minutes, depending on the heat of your grill. You want all your food to be well cooked, browned and even a little charred in places.

Remove from heat. Squeeze lemon juice over steak, sprinkle all skewers with fleur de sel or Maldon salt, and serve on a large platter with bowls of steamed rice, dipping sauces (below) and cold Sapporo or fine saké.

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Three dipping sauces:

Ponzu wasabi butter
3 tbsp. ponzu sauce (or 2 tbsp. lite soy sauce, 1 tbsp. lemon juice)
1 tsp. wasabi paste
1 tbsp. cold butter

Mix ponzu sauce and wasabi. Heat in a small pan until simmering, or in a microwave-safe bowl for 20 seconds. Stir in butter until incorporated, and serve.

Spicy soy sauce
2 tbsp. soy sauce
1 tbsp. rice wine vinegar
1 tsp. Sriracha or other chili sauce

Mix together soy sauce, rice wine vinegar and chili sauce, and serve. (Adjust taste to spiciness you desire by adding more or less chili sauce.)

Garlic lemon sauce
1 tbsp. lemon juice
1 tbsp. soy sauce
1 tbsp. olive oil
1 garlic clove
1/4 tsp. freshly ground pepper

Mix together lemon juice and soy sauce. Grate garlic on a Microplane grater (or smash with the flat part of a knife and mince finely) and add with ground pepper to lemon/soy mixture. Stir olive oil vigorously into sauce to emulsify, and serve.

3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Lisa Gaskin
    Sep 20, 2011 @ 01:18:21

    Just LOVED that place…must go again (Maleia and I went once after the all of us did)


  2. paul
    Sep 20, 2011 @ 21:33:03

    Fond memories of Gonpachi. Hope my new garden (Square Garden concept) works as well as promised and the effort put in yields a tasty crop that I can grill over the split oak logs I have been laboring over for a year so it will be aged perfectly for hot coals on the open pit. I feel a Sumiyaki coming on now the weather is changing in FLA to Autumn–tomorrow I believe it is!!


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