Cooking at the table
The idea of cooking at the table is very popular in Japan and something that always appealed to our mother. For a person so energised by social gatherings, what could be better than entertaining family and guests whilst cooking at the table! Her most famous exposition of this was fondue. Mother was a fan of fondue long before it became the rage in the the 70’s and long after abandoned fondue sets retired to fondue heaven in the 80’s. It was never really about the food – or even eating a balanced meal – it was much more about the fun, the rituals, and those silly forfeits for dropping your bread in the cheese…
As an adolescent, fondues could be quite evocative; the heady whiffs of kirsch, wine, garlic and meth fumes lingered in the imagination – like a boy scout intruding on a fancy adult campfire. Mother did not just settle for cheese fondue, but also a version with meats and vegetables cooked in oil. However, for this we had to bring out our big American electric fryer: a large deep pan with integral heating elements to heat the oil. The jeopardy of the campfire was far more evident here, as hot oil would smoke, spit, and splutter around precariously balanced fondue forks.
An electric fryer full of hot oil in the middle of a dining table, despite the novelty, can never be a good idea, not least because of difficulties with the cables routed over tabletops and across the floor (later, an electrician fitted a power socket under the table and drilled a hole in the middle of the table to accommodate the cable to the fryer). However, the main purpose of the fryer was not fondue, but to cook sukiyaki, a much safer Japanese ‘hot pot’ meal cooked at the table and based on simmered meat and vegetables. The same ‘hot pot’ set-up is used for shabu shabu, similar to some fondues, where individual pieces of food are cooked in a poaching liquid. No doubt our mother’s recipes were very flexible – the results may well have been a blending of sukiyaki, shabu shabu or even actual ‘hot pot’, popular in Far Eastern and particularly Korean cooking.
Indeed, there is no reason why our fryer could not double as a ‘teppan’ – the hot iron griddle built into tables for teppanyaki style cooking. However, I am sure our mother would have been perfectly happy deferring to the professionals at teppanyaki restaurants. Apart from the delight of communal cooking, she would have been enthralled by the chef’s showmanship – the tricks, flicks, and jokes being an an essential part of the teppanyaki experience.
It is tempting to imagine small yakitori-style barbecue grills placed in the centre of an indoor dining room table; but as for ‘teppan’, it is probably best leaving such ideas to the specialist establishments. The yakitori-style barbecue grills and stoves are known as hibachis in North America – our family had several. Although we never brought the hibachis indoors, the family could still huddle around the charcoal-fuelled stove on an outdoor patio. The barbecue may be outside but it had all the conviviality of cooking at the table.