Every Christmas Eve, we eat lunch at a hibachi restaurant with my parents and my sister D.

I don’t know exactly how that became our tradition, but it has stood for several years now — long enough that L. and P. don’t remember ever doing anything different about Christmas Eve lunch. As it happens, there’s a fabulous hibachi place near my folks’ house and while hibachi is a unanimous favorite in our home, this particular restaurant does one thing better than all other hibachi restaurants I’ve tried. They have absolutely amazing, and I mean KILLER, fried rice.

Yes, yes, all hibachi restaurants have good fried rice. It’s part of the experience. But THIS fried rice is so good that for many of us in the Christmas Eve lunch party, it’s the only thing on the plate that really matters. If one of the kids can’t finish his portion, all adults at the table will practically stab one another with forks and/or chopsticks to get the leftovers. And for the life of me, I could never figure out why the rice at that one restaurant was just a shade better than everyone else’s hibachi rice.

So this year, at Christmas Eve lunch, I decided to pay really close attention to the chef as he prepared the rice. And I realized that everything I thought I knew about fried rice was wrong.

For one thing, I never really considered butter to be a crucial thing in making Japanese food. And possibly it’s not, in Japan; but at a hibachi joint? It’s the butter, baby. At this particular restaurant, garlic butter.

For another, I never paid attention to the squeeze bottles the chef used in preparing the rice. I figured there was soy sauce, sure, but I hadn’t noticed the sake.

Also — and here’s what I believe is the REAL secret of this particular restaurant’s fried rice — you know that sort of white sauce they serve along with your hibachi order? Some places call it Yum Yum sauce? Well, that goes in there too. Not a lot of it, but when you’re distracted by conversation at your table the chef is sneaking a little ladleful of Yum Yum sauce into the rice and mixing it up and you’re none the wiser.

As with most deceptively simple dishes, the devil’s in the details if you want to make great fried rice, and apparently the details I’d missed were garlic butter, sake, and Yum Yum sauce. This revelation brought out in me both triumph (yes! I know the secret!) and despair (no! I’m not buying sake just for fried rice, and what the heck even IS Yum Yum sauce, anyway?).

Still, I was fool enough to try it — with my own modifications. And after some tinkering, I’m pleased to say that I’ve gotten REALLY CLOSE to that restaurant’s rice. No, I’ll probably never produce a plate of fried rice that tastes exactly like the one we all fight over at Christmas Eve; but I can now produce a fried rice that makes J. and the boys insanely happy. So happy, in fact, that we can make a whole meal out of just the rice, and even my unabashedly carnivorous boys don’t ask why there’s no meat on the table.

I’ve substituted dry sherry for sake, because that’s an ingredient I can justify buying and letting hang out in the upper cabinets. I’ve done some Googling and tried to figure out just what’s in that Yum Yum sauce, and I’ve modified the ingredients to reflect what SEEMS like an incredibly weird mish mosh of items but is, in reality, just a bunch of pantry staples that mix into the rice and produce a similar flavor profile without me having to try to deal with exactly replicating the sauce itself. You’ll want to question some of the ingredients, but trust me: Just go with it. Without the oddities the rice is pretty good, but not great.

The only other thing I can say to you about making this fried rice is: Be patient. Give things time. Don’t be tempted to make the dish with rice you’ve just cooked; it won’t come out quite right. Don’t be tempted to pull it off the heat too soon, or to stop stirring and tossing and, well, FRYING it until it’s good and dry and toasty. And don’t make the mistake of thinking, as I originally did, that fried rice should be a super quick and easy meal to make. It’s not, or at least, THIS fried rice is not. I don’t mean to scare you — it’s not hard to make, or anything — but it’s no 10-minutes-to-the-table feat, either. Good hibachi fried rice is going to want your attention, and you’re going to want to give it.

And with that, friends, I present to you my knock-off of the Christmas Eve lunch favorite. It’s just close enough to the real thing to keep me from pining away until next December.

Get the Recipe: Hibachi Style Fried Rice