In Singapore’s thriving eating scene, one of the newcomers could also be the oldest. The classic American Teppanyaki chain Benihana has recently opened a restaurant in Singapore’s Lion City.
Established by restaurant owner and restaurateur from Japan Rocky Aoki in New York in 1964, The chain played an important role in the popularity of Teppanyaki partly because of the elaborate knife tricks involved in cutting and dicing the ingredients, as well as the extravagant pyrotechnics used while making a grill on an iron grill.
The origins of this method can be traced to Japan’s postwar period, which was when it became an innovative method of cooking items like meat, seafood, and vegetables.
The word itself is a mixture of Teppan iron plate as well as the phrase yaki, which means the grilling of or cooking.
Benihana Singapore’s beef teppanyaki course.
This gave chefs an opportunity to demonstrate their skills as they interacted with customers.
In the 90s and 2000s, this spectacle-like eating sensation of cooking food to ablaze was the norm on cruise ships as well as in glitzy dining establishments.
The famous garlic rice of Benihana. Photo: Instagram/@benihana
As the culinary landscape has changed, consumers have begun to appreciate the more complex and thoughtful eating story.
The most recent generation of chefs from Teppanyaki in the region echoes this idea, generally preferring the subtle elegance of a dish over flamboyant excess.
Newer establishments that are in the pipeline are Kagayaki from Ishigaki Yoshida, Miyoshi from Fat Cow, both in Singapore and Kaen and Enishi within Hong Kong and Koki in Hanoi, Vietnam.
There is a place and time for theatrics in Teppanyaki. The amount of which is contingent on the personality of the chef as well as the preferences of the guests.
Chef Junichi Yoshida, chairman of The Japan Teppanyaki Association
The chefs of these establishments let the ingredients speak for themselves by elegantly amplifying their flavors through their food instead of the gimmicks.
And even in Benihana Singapore, the art of restraint has found a place.
At first, bold actions are reduced for certain dishes, like, for instance, the Onion Volcano, where the chef sets an onion ring tower in a fire to caramelize and cook the ingredients.
Junichi Yoshida is the head chef at Ishigaki Yoshida in Tokyo, as well as the chairperson of The Japan Teppanyaki Association, as well as a consultant at Singapore Teppanyaki restaurant Kagayaki from Ishigaki Yoshida. Photo: Kagayaki
The chef Junichi Yoshida, who helms Ishigaki Yoshida in Tokyo and serves as the chair of the Japan Teppanyaki Association, says: “As with other cuisines Teppanyaki’s style of cooking is constantly changing. It is a result of using the most modern technology and equipment to offer the highest quality of food and presentation for customers.”
It is his restaurant advisor for Kagayaki by Ishigaki Yoshida. The brand-new Singapore branch of his Tokyo restaurant was among the first restaurants run by chefs to receive a Michelin rating in the year 2015.
The intimate restaurant with 18 seats in Singapore is renowned for its top ingredients, often obtained from select Japanese producers.
Ishigaki Yoshida created the interior of Kagayaki. Photo: Kagayaki
Masuda Kagayaki beef, when thinly cut, is renowned for its transparency and delicate flavor. It is the star of Kagayaki, created by Ishigaki Yoshida. Photo: Kagayaki
The crown jewel of the collection is Masuda Kagayaki beef, which is famous for its clear, delicate cuts.
The restaurant has exclusive rights to this breed of Southeast Asia, and each cow has its birth certificate (complete with the print of its nose), which traces its lineage.
At Kagayaki, you can cook the meat with an exclusive technique designed by Yoshida where each side of the beef is cooked to perfection at the beginning of the multi-course meal prior to being put in the upper right corner of the Teppan which is where there is a low-temperature.
Grilled steaks, cooked with Yoshida’s unique method, at Kagayaki in the company of Ishigaki Yoshida. Photo: Kagayaki
It’s only when it’s ready to serve your main course of beef that the chef is able to grill the steak on the binchotan charcoal to create the signature crispy crust of the dish.
It’s a soft bite that does not overpower you with fat.
It’s not an extravagant technique, but it is a demonstration of mastery over the Teppan as well as the chef’s flawless timing.
Kagayaki, created by Ishigaki Yoshida’s head chef Nobuyasu Kamiko, shows the birth certificate of the Masuda Kagayaki bovine, which features an animal’s face print. Photo: Karen Tee
“Creating a great teppanyaki dish comes with years of experience, practice, technique and knowledge of how ingredients react and taste over different heat applications,” Kagayaki’s chef-in-chief, Nobuyasu Kamiko.
“A good teppanyaki dish is therefore only possible in the hands of an experienced chef for whom the surface of the teppan is second nature, with an instinctive understanding of where certain ingredients should be cooked.”
In the Hong Kong restaurant Enishi, which was founded in the year 2000 by Shun Sato Ami Hamasaki and Toru Takano. The Teppanyaki experience is designed to highlight their culinary traditions as well as their personal experiences and philosophy.
Enishi co-founders Ami Hamasaki (left) and Toru Takano. Photo: Enishi
Many of the dishes refer to the food memories they have from their travels. For instance, Hamasaki pays homage to her fondness for Chinese dim sum in her Shirako Gyoza, served with Hokkaido Shiso flower and crown of the daisy with a green sauce.
Takano’s take on Sichuan’s style of steamed fish includes scorpion fish that comes from Fukuoka with Kombu, which was an inspiration from the first time he had dinner in Hong Kong.
“We would like to introduce teppanyaki culture to a new generation by mixing cooking techniques and presentations to let guests experience a sense of homecoming,” says Takano.