Mad Men didn't exactly blow its reputation for verisimilitude when Don Draper and his lady friend wandered into Benihana on last night's episode, but it sure seems like one of the restaurant-goers would have mentioned the shrimp sauce.
Hibachi fans have been infatuated with the uniquely American combination of mayonnaise and sugar since Benihana opened in 1964. While a Benihana spokeswoman reached by phone today couldn't confirm the restaurant was the first teppanyaki-style grill to serve the creamy, sweet sauce, The New York Times in 1966 described Benihana diners "dipping steak alternately into one sauce, then another."
Shrimp sauce is especially adored in the South, a region that's long favored mayonnaise in its gelatin fruit salads. Customers at Japanese steakhouses in the Southeast like to load up two or three dipping bowls with sauce before their meals hits the hibachi.
"Oh my gosh, people die for it," says Jessica Norman, manager of Makoto Seafood & Steakhouse in Boone, North Carolina. "They give their kids spoons."
Norman's restaurant shares a name -- but not ownership -- with a Florida outfit that's one of the few commercial bottlers of shrimp sauce. Despite the sauce's tremendous popularity, it's not an easy item to find at the grocery store, perhaps because the accepted recipe for the stuff seems to vary regionally.
In western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee, the sauce that hibachi customers use to douse their rice, glazed carrots, steak and seafood is usually referred to as "white sauce." But Midwestern-based shrimp sauce fans seeking recipes online cite a mustard-tinged "yellow sauce," while Floridians -- possibly schooled in East Coast traditions pioneered by Benihana -- call their favorite condiment "pink sauce."
Online recipes for "Benihana" shrimp sauce include ketchup, paprika and cayenne pepper, ingredients that help give the mixture a McDonalds' "special sauce" tang.
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Norman refused to reveal the exact recipe for Makoto's venerated white sauce:
"It's all common ingredients," she says. "Nothing outrageous."
Maybe not, but the recipe is so coveted that a website that consists of little more than instructions for making white sauce has received more than 2,000 "thank you" notes since it was published in 2006.
"I have searched beyond the Moon it seems for this recipe," a grateful sauce lover wrote last week. "What a relief that the search is over! Hats off to you!!"