Olivia Falcigno / NPR
The scene is known. People sit around a rectangular table, the majority of which is taken up by a smooth iron cook top. Gas flames flicker beneath. A man wearing a tall red hat and uniform from a white chef approaches, pulls out a trolley filled with cold food, large kitchenware and various bottles of sauces. He has a spatula and a big metal fork. He brings them together: cling, cling. Glittering eyes, he looks around the table. "Welcome to Benihana."
More commonly referred to as hibachi, Japanese teppanyaki-style cooking has become part of the American dining experience. The combination of noodles, rice, vegetables and meat cooked on a thank-you basis brings customers to these restaurants as much as the high and flashy flair of the chefs cooking at the table.
One of the more subtle curiosities of teppanyaki restaurants – beyond the stacked onion rings with fire and tossing behind metal utensils – is a creamy orange-pink sauce placed next to the steaming meal. Almost every teppanyaki restaurant will serve it, though the name differs depending on who you talk to. White sauce (a misleading moniker), shrimp sauce, yummy sauce, yum yum sauce – all used interchangeably.
Considered by many in America to be a Japanese classic (one Reddit user called it "infamous"; one blogger speculated that there are really only "two types of people eating at a hibachi restaurant, those who get double white sauce and those who don't know you can get double white sauce "), the sweet, slightly tangy taste of the sauce varies between restaurants and regions as much as the name does. A little more sweetness in one place. A bit more seaweed in another. Some versions are reminiscent of fry sauce, popular in the South. Such variety questions whether the sauce we taste at the local teppanyaki restaurants is even Japanese.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the answer, it seems, is no.
Nancy Singleton Hachisu, author of three cookbooks on traditional and modern Japanese food, was confused when I first asked her about the sauce. She had not heard of it being used in Japan, and in fact objected to my first question about hibachi restaurants. "Since hibachi is a traditional coal heater for the room," she told me, "I can't believe Japan would provide information on this topic."
Once I sent her a description of the sauce, which I called shrimp sauce and she called "basically pink mayo," she told me that there is no evidence of its use in Japanese cuisine.
Elizabeth Andoh, who has lived in Japan for half a century and runs the Japanese culinary education program "A Taste of Culture," was also puzzled. "I don't know about white sauce or shrimp sauce served with Japanese beef," she said. When I asked her for a more detailed description, she replied, "This kind of mayo-based … tomato sauce is not part of any Japanese steakhouse repertoire I know of."
And Polly Adema, director of the Food Studies Program at the California College of the Pacific, said the sauce's origin is unclear, but probably not deeply rooted in Japanese culture. Maybe, she said, the sauce comes from congruent American and modern Japanese flavors for mayonnaise.
Andoh said that in general, the Japanese are "mayo mad." But such speculation doesn't get you very far.
"Which came first: a love for mayo or a mayo-enriched dish?" Asked Adema. "[It’s] one of these questions we may never be able to answer."
The recipe for the sauce is just as hard to come by. I reached out to 15 different restaurants around the United States – big chains and independent of stations – but each declined my request. "We can't divulge that information," said a Benihana chief in Maryland. I got similar answers from a Sakura in New Jersey, an Edohana in Texas and a Flame Hibachi in New York.
Chuck Cutler had a very similar problem 25 years ago when he first tasted what he calls white sauce in a teppanyaki restaurant. "I noticed that all the others at the table were asking for two bowls of white sauce … so I tried it. I was immediately hooked."
Cutler spent a decade asking different restaurants about the recipe, to no avail. . "It's a Japanese secret," cooks would tell him. One day, however, he stumbled upon a sauce produced by a teppanyaki restaurant in a local Florida grocery store. He remembers that it was called vegetable sauce. So he bought a bottle, "and shut up it didn't taste quite like what I was looking for."
Using the ingredients in the vegetable sauce bottle, Cutler was able to come up with his own recipe (Chuck's Easy Recipe), which in a form of revenge against the restaurants that had rejected him, created a website for: Japanese-Steakhouse -White-Sauce.com. According to Cutler, it was the first good recipe online. The site was created almost a year and a half ago and now has 229 pages of comments from visitors. There are thousands of comments from people all over the world that say & # 39; My God, I've been searching for this forever & # 39 ;, he said. "Ninety-eight percent of them are positive."
The popularity and intrigue of the sauce led a Teppanyaki restaurant owner, Terry Ho, to start bottling it in bulk. She owns more than 20 restaurants in the South – some teppanyaki and some Chinese. He has lived in Albany, Ga., Since the 1970s, when his grandfather immigrated from China.
Ho's sauce is called Terry Ho's Yum Yum Sauce.
The name is distinctive – and a concise brand concept. According to Ho, "Yum Yum sauce" is far more appealing than white sauce or shrimp sauce, and none of them are even a vaguely accurate description of the actual sauce. "There are no shrimp in this recipe," he said. "Why do you call it shrimp sauce?" However, Yum Yum sauce is appropriate: "Well, I mean, it tastes great."
For several years, Southerners who had tasted or heard of Ho's Yum Yum sauce – which he made slightly different from others (less oil and sugar) – came to his restaurants and asked for 16 or 20 grams of the. He wanted it out in Styrofoam containers.
To see the business potential, a decade ago, Ho began producing and bottling the sauce on a mass scale. Success came quickly. The sauce worked its way to larger and larger outlets, diffused throughout the United States. It is now sold in around 30,000 grocery stores across the country. Ho said the company is growing by 10 to 15% every year. The sauce is also stocked in US military commissioners all over the world. "There are people in Germany and Saudi Arabia buying the sauce," Ho said proudly.
"My plan is to make Yum Yum sauce the next American spice," he told me. "We don't want to be just [perceived as] an Asian sauce. We want to be the next ranch."
When I asked Cutler about Terry Ho's Yum Yum sauce, he sighed. "I tried it and I didn't think it was that good." But of course, he acknowledged, taste is taste. Different sauces will appeal to different people in different regions.
The sauce – delicious as it is – is something different for everyone. That's what is available. What is memorable. Maybe even the one with the most creative name.