A growing favourite among the world’s best chefs, robata grills can be found in the best restaurants up and down the country, with one of the latest being Gordon Ramsay’s new Lucky Cat restaurant. ‘Robata’ is short for ‘robatayaki’, which translates as ‘fireside cooking’ in Japanese cuisine. The cooking style refers to a method of cooking over hot charcoal on a wide and flat open fireplace, similar to barbecuing. Meat, seafood and vegetables can be cooked on the robata grill, and the open grill in front of hungry diners is often accompanied by some foodie theatrics by the robata chefs while they cook.
This method of cooking has roots in various Japanese traditions. One of these is the Japanese tea ceremony. Traditional Japanese homes have a sunken pit with charcoal ready to heat tea in a teapot hanging above on a chain. This is typically how tea is heated for the culturally rich tea ceremonies the country is known for.
Families quickly realised how the pits could be used for more than heating tea, so food was also cooked over these traditional pits too. In fact, before food was cooked in homes in this way, robata grills were first used for cooking food aboard boats by Japanese fisherman. Originating in Hokkaido – a northern island in Japan – fisherman hailing from this region looked for a way to cook on their boats while they were out fishing. Inspired by the tea ceremony pits, they devised a method of securing coals inside a stone box, which protected wooden boats from the heat but provided a means of cooking, as well as a source of warmth.
This ingenious design quickly took off across Japan and later became so popular, dedicated robata restaurants followed suit. Now a global phenomenon, those fisherman from hundreds of years ago would never have imagined how their clever design would have a worldwide impact! Some robata restaurants even serve food from utensils that look like boat paddles to honour the early beginnings of this cooking style.
Cooking on a robata grill is a fine art, since these grills are very hot and the temperature cannot be adjusted. As such, robata chefs are highly skilled at keeping food on the grill for exactly the right amount of time, or adjusting the height of the food being cooked above the charcoal to create the perfect cooking conditions. The flavour of meat cooked on robata grills is typically succulent inside with a crisp, smoked exterior. Potatoes and sweet potatoes cooked in foil amid the coal also take on a distinctive flame-grilled flavour.