The scene is a familiar one. People sit around a rectangular table, the bulk of which is taken up by a smooth iron cooktop. Gas flames flicker underneath. A man wearing a tall red hat and a white chef’s uniform approaches, pulling a cart filled with cold food, large cooking utensils, and various bottles of sauces. He holds a spatula and a large metal fork. He brings them together: cling-clang, cling-clang. Eyes sparkling, 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 fried up on a griddle draws customers to these restaurants as much as the loud and showy flair of the chefs cooking at the table.
One of the more subtle curiosities of teppanyaki restaurants — beyond the stacked onion rings of fire and behind-the-back toss of metal utensils — is a creamy orange-pink sauce placed beside your steaming meal. Almost every teppanyaki restaurant will serve it, though its name differs depending on whom you talk to. White sauce (a deceptive moniker), shrimp sauce, yummy sauce, yum yum sauce — are all used interchangeably.
Considered by many in America to be a Japanese classic (one Reddit user called it “infamous”; a blogger speculated that there are really only “two types of folk that dine at a hibachi restaurant, those that get double white sauce and those that don’t know you can get double white sauce”), the sauce’s sweet, slightly tangy flavor varies between restaurants and regions as much as the name does. A little more sweetness in one place. A little more tang in another. Some versions are reminiscent of fry sauce, popular in the South. Such variety calls into question whether the sauce we taste in our local teppanyaki restaurants is even Japanese at all.
Maybe not surprisingly, the answer, it appears, is no.
Nancy Singleton Hachisu, author of three cookbooks on traditional and modern Japanese cuisine, was confused when I first asked her about the sauce. She hadn’t heard of it being used in Japan, and actually objected to my initial question about hibachi restaurants. “Since hibachi is a traditional charcoal heater for the room,” she told me, “I cannot think that Japan would yield 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 of any white sauce or shrimp sauce that is served with Japanese steak,” she said. When I prompted her with a more detailed description, she responded, “This sort 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 California’s College of the Pacific, said that the sauce’s origins are fuzzy, though probably not deeply rooted in Japanese culture. Perhaps, she said, the sauce stems from congruent American and modern Japanese tastes for mayonnaise.
Andoh did say that, in general, the Japanese are “mayo crazy.” But such speculation doesn’t get you very far.
“Which came first: an affection for mayo or a mayo-enriched dish?” Adema asked. “[It’s] one of those questions we may never be able to answer.”
The recipe for the sauce is equally difficult to come by. I reached out to 15 different restaurants around the U.S. — large chains and independently run joints — but each turned down my request. “We cannot divulge that information,” a Benihana manager in Maryland told me. I received similar answers from a Sakura in New Jersey, an Edohana in Texas, and a Flame Hibachi in New York.
Chuck Cutler ran into 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 other people at the table were asking for two bowls of white sauce … so I tried it. I was instantly hooked.”
Cutler spent a decade asking different restaurants for the recipe, to no avail. “It’s a Japanese secret,” chefs would tell him. One day, though, he stumbled across a sauce produced by a teppanyaki restaurant in a local Florida grocery store. He remembers it being called vegetable sauce. So he bought a bottle, “and darned if it didn’t taste exactly like what I had been looking for.”
Using the ingredients on 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, he made a website for: Japanese-Steakhouse-White-Sauce.com. According to Cutler, it was the first good recipe online. Created almost a decade and a half ago, the website now has 229 pages of comments from visitors. There “are thousands of comments from people all over the world saying ‘Oh my God, I’ve been looking for this forever,'” he said. “Ninety-eight percent of them are positive.”
The popularity and intrigue around the sauce led one teppanyaki restaurant owner, Terry Ho, to start bottling it in bulk. Ho 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 nifty branding move. According to Ho, “Yum Yum sauce” is much more appealing than white sauce or shrimp sauce, neither of which is even a vaguely accurate description of the actual sauce. “There’s no shrimp in this recipe,” he said. “Why are you calling it shrimp sauce?” Yum Yum sauce, though, is fitting: “Well, I mean, it tastes yummy.”
For years, Southerners who had tasted or heard about Ho’s Yum Yum sauce — which he made a little differently from others (less oil and sugar) — would come to his restaurants asking for 16 or 20 ounces of it. He would dole it out in Styrofoam containers.
Seeing the business potential, about a decade ago Ho started manufacturing and bottling the sauce on a mass scale. Success came quickly. The sauce worked its way to larger and larger outlets, diffusing throughout the United States. It is now sold in around 30,000 grocery stores nationwide. Ho said the company is growing by 10 to 15% every year. The sauce is also stocked in American military commissaries around the world. “There are people in Germany and Saudi Arabia buying the sauce,” Ho proudly said.
“My plan is to turn Yum Yum sauce into the next American condiment,” 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 that one and I didn’t think it was that great.” But of course, he acknowledged, tastes are tastes. Different sauces will appeal to different people in different regions.
The sauce — delicious as it is — is something different to everyone. It’s what’s available. What’s memorable. Maybe even what has the most creative name.