But few can resist the smoky charms of a perfectly seared shiitake or the roguish char on tender kobe, particularly when you’ve watched them expertly tossed over charcoal fire, the flavours coming alive even more when they’re served across the counter, deliciously hot and intriguingly plated on a wooden oar… It could well be the story of how one comes to a Zen understanding of life in its essential moments in a lively bar with friends.
Literally meaning ‘fireside cooking’, Robatayaki or Robata as this traditional Japanese barbecue is known, is one in which small portions of skewered seafood, vegetables and meat are slow-grilled over smoking charcoal. Its story of origins links to a centuries-old rustic style of cooking around a communal hearth called irori, the ingenious invention of very hungry Japanese fishermen on Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island. They devised a method wherein they put red-hot charcoal inside a stone box at the start of the day, which they carried with them on the boat. At the end of the day, on landing or while still out in the Pacific Ocean, they gathered around the irori with their catch of the day and cooked fish over the still smouldering charcoal. Since they cooked on an oar from the boat, robatayaki places typically dish out food on a long wooden oar, recalling their derring do. Like the Frontier chulha, the irori was both a place of cooking as well as a source of heat generation and camaraderie. Even today, robatayaki is a communal experience of diners gathered around an assortment of fresh pickings, which they choose and ask the chef to grill, and the chef in turn engages diners in a unique fiery-tongued dialogue of food.
Relish flame-licked flavours of the traditional Japanese barbecue at the Robata Fest at ITC Gardenia, Bangalore, which continues from 4 to 20 September. If you’re in Chennai, your nose will surely lead you to ITC Grand Chola, where the 10-day Robatayaki festival at Pan Asian, from 20 to 30 September, lays out an unmatched array of Japanese grill selections and dipping sauces paired with each dish.