In the West, a hibachi is a small, portable grill inspired by the Japanese shichirin. In Japanese, a hibachi is actually a form of heater, traditionally used in the winter to warm a room. Like many borrowed concepts and words, the hibachi evolved as it spread across the Pacific Ocean. This can be a source of confusion to people who straddle Japan and the West, since the term is used so differently. In both senses, the etymology is the same, as hi means “fire” in Japanese, while a bachi is a bowl, so a hibachi is a bowl which holds fire, or “fire bowl.”
In the original Japanese sense, the hibachi was used by members of the upper and middle class during the often bitter Japanese winters through the twentieth century. The concept of a large charcoal heater was imported from China at some point in Japanese history, probably around 1000 CE. Early hibachis were made of wood lined with clay, while more complex and decorative hibachis began to appear with fancy ornaments, lacquer, and gold leaf. In addition to heating a room, a traditional hibachi could be used to keep a pot of tea or plate of food warm.
In the sense of a grill, a hibachi is a small open style grill made by placing a sturdy grill over a container which may be oval, square, or rectangular. The container is used to hold charcoal for cooking, just like the bowl of a full sized grill. To be termed a true hibachi, the grill must be at least ostensibly portable, and the small grills are in fact often carried on camping trips for use as outdoor stoves. Hibachis have no lids, and they can be used to grill a wide assortment of foods from vegetable kebabs to cuts of chicken and fish.
Construction materials used for hibachis vary. High quality stoves will be made from cast iron, which makes them sturdy, although much less portable. Cheaper tin and steel versions are also available, although they are less durable. In both cases, the traditional fuel is charcoal, although some hibachis are gas fired for convenience.
Many restaurants use hibachis to flame or finish food, since they are small enough to be used without posing a danger to diners, and many diners like to watch their food being cooked. Japanese restaurants in the United States may refer to their shichirins as hibachis, to avoid confusion. Whatever one calls them, the small grilling stoves play an important role in Japanese cooking, which places a heavy focus on fresh, perfectly cooked ingredients.