Olivia Falcigno / NPR
The scene is known. People sit around a rectangular table, the main part of which is occupied by a smooth iron hob. Below flare gas flames. A man in a tall red hat and white uniform approaches and pulls a cart filled with cold food, large cooking utensils, and various bottled sauces. He is holding a spatula and a big metal fork. He brings them together: cling to you, cling to you. He looks around with sparkling eyes. "Welcome to Benihana."
Japanese teppanyaki-style cuisine, also known as hibachi, has become part of the American dining experience. The combination of noodles, rice, vegetables and meat roasted on a grill attracts customers to these restaurants as well as the loud and eye-catching flair of the chefs cooking at the table.
One of the more subtle temptations of Teppanyaki restaurants – beyond The stacked onion rings of fire and the metal utensils behind them are a creamy, orange-pinkish sauce that sits next to your steaming dish. Almost every teppanyaki restaurant will serve it, though the name depends on who you speak to. White sauce (a deceptive nickname), shrimp sauce, delicious sauce, delicious sauce – all are used interchangeably.
Considered by many to be a Japanese classic in America (a reddit user called it "notorious"), one blogger speculated that there are actually "only two kinds of people who dine in a Hibachi restaurant, the ones that getting double white sauce and those who do not know you can get double white sauce "), the sweet, slightly spicy taste of the sauce varies between restaurants and regions as well as the name. A little more sweetness in one place. A little more tang in another. Some versions are reminiscent of the south-popular gravy. This variety questions whether the sauce we sample in our 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 cuisine, was puzzled when I asked her about the sauce for the first time. She had never heard of it being used in Japan and disagreed with my initial question about hibachi restaurants. "Since Hibachi is a traditional charcoal heater for the room," she told me, "I can not imagine Japan providing any information on this subject."
Once I sent her a description of the sauce I called shrimp sauce and she called "basically pink mayo" and told me that there is no evidence of its use in Japanese cooking.
Elizabeth Andoh, who has lived in Japan for half a century and runs the Japanese culinary education program "A Taste of Culture" has also become confused. "I do not know any white sauce or prawn sauce served with Japanese steak," she said. When I asked her with a more specific description, she replied, "This kind of Mayo-based … tomato sauce is not part of a well-known Japanese steakhouse repertoire."
And Polly Adema The director of the Food Studies Program at the California College of the Pacific said the origins of the sauce are blurred, though they are not likely deeply rooted in Japanese culture. Perhaps, she said, the sauce comes from congruent American and modern Japanese tastes of mayonnaise.
Andoh said that the Japanese are generally "mayo-crazy". But such speculations will not get you far.
"What came first: a taste for Mayo or a mayo-enriched dish?" Asked Adema. "[It’s] We may never be able to answer one of these questions."
The recipe for the sauce is just as hard to come by. I've approached 15 different restaurants in the US – big chains and independently operated restaurants – but each one refused my request. "We can not reveal this information," a Benihana manager in Maryland told me. I received similar responses from a Sakura in New Jersey, an Edohana in Texas and a Flame Hibachi in New York.
Chuck Cutler came across a very similar problem 25 years ago when he first tasted what he called the white sauce Teppanyaki Restaurant. "I noticed that all the other people at the table were asking for two bowls of white sauce … so I tried, I was immediately excited."
Cutler spent a decade asking various restaurants for the recipe, without success. "It's a Japanese secret," the cooks told him. One day, however, he stumbled over a sauce made in a teppanyaki restaurant at a local grocery store in Florida. He remembers that it's called vegetable sauce. So he bought a bottle and found that it did not taste exactly what I was looking for.
With the ingredients on the vegetable sauce bottle, Cutler invented his own recipe (Chuck's Easy) recipe, which he made out of revenge on the restaurants that rejected him: Japanese-Steakhouse-White-Sauce.com. According to Cutler, it was the first good recipe online. The site was created almost a decade and a half ago and now has 229 pages of comments from visitors. "There are thousands of comments from people around the world saying, 'Oh my God, I've always been looking for it,' he said. 'Ninety-eight percent of them are positive.'
The popularity and allure around The sauce prompted a teppanyaki restaurant owner, Terry Ho, to bottle them in large quantities Ho has more than 20 restaurants in the south – some teppanyaki and some Chinese – and has been living in Albany, Georgia, as his grandfather since the 1970s
Ho-sauce is called Terry Ho-yum-yum sauce.
The name is unmistakable – and a skilful branding move. "Ho's Yum Yum Sauce is much more appealing than white sauce or." Shrimp sauce, none of which is a vaguely accurate description of the actual sauce. "This recipe does not contain prawns," he said. "Why do you call it shrimp sauce?" Yum Yum sauce, however, fits: "Well, I mean, it tastes delicious." [19659008ForyearsSouthernerswhohadtastedorheardofHo'sYumYumsauce-whichhemadealittledifferently(lessoilandsugar)-wouldcometohisrestaurantsanddemand16or20ouncesofitHedistributeditinstyrofoamcontainers
When he realized the business potential, Ho began producing and bottling the sauce on a mass scale about a decade ago. The success came quickly. The sauce came to ever larger outlets and spread throughout the United States. It is now sold in about 30,000 grocery stores nationwide. According to Ho, the company grows every year by 10 to 15%. The sauce is also stored in American military commissars around the world. "There are people in Germany and Saudi Arabia who buy the sauce," Ho said proudly.
"My plan is to turn yum-yum sauce into the next American spice," he told me. "We do not just want to be an Asian sauce [perceived as]we want to be the next ranch."
When I asked Cutler about Terry Ho's Yum Yum sauce, he sighed. "I tried and did not like it that much." But of course, he admitted, tastes are tastes. Various sauces appeal to different people in different regions.
The sauce – delicious as it is – is different for everyone. It is what is available. What is memorable. Maybe even something has the most creative name.