There are a couple of rites of passage for the American living in Hiroshima, Japan: engaging in intense debate over U.S. foreign policy with natives of the Peace City and being invited to try your hand at making and eating okonomiyaki.
I did my fair share of both during a year living there and on a recent trip back, and I'm still not sure which one was trickier or more delicate. But I definitely know which was more satisfying.
Okonomiyaki is a Hiroshima specialty, a remarkable mix of crepe, cabbage, egg and noodles, along with a choice of pork, shrimp or octopus and any number of toppings, including corn, bean sprouts, spring onions, rice cakes, cheese and fish flakes.
In a land filled with overpriced yet undersized dishes, okonomiyaki is the opposite: It's a hearty meal that, at about $10 a plate, is also relatively inexpensive. It's also the Taco Bell for the Japanese after-hours set -- a quick, satisfying filler for those who get the beer munchies at 2 in the morning.
But okonomiyaki -- which translates to "as you like it," a reference to the numerous combinations one can choose -- is more than just a cheap meal or a novelty for tourists. This is a dish that tells the story of Japan generally, and Hiroshima specifically, after World War II.
In a war-ravaged country, with rice scarcer than before, residents turned to the flour-based okonomiyaki to stuff stomachs efficiently. At its most basic, okonomiyaki is simply a crepe filled with noodles, pork and egg -- or soba-niku-tama, as the standard version is called. Only over time, as Japan recovered economically and spiritually, did variations of the dish occur and multiply.
Hiroshima has by some estimates more than 2,000 restaurants that specialize in okonomiyaki, most easily identified by the hot-plate counters at which hungry patrons belly up. The place to start is Okonomimura, or Okonomiyaki Village, a six-story building in downtown Hiroshima featuring 28 restaurants that appear to be identical.
Except, of course, they're not. Just ask the chefs who run them. My friend Miyuki took me directly to the fourth floor, where we sat on stools at the counter of Daimarudo, which translates to Big Circle Hall. The owner and head chef, Satoru Ono, whose father operates an okonomiyaki shop near where Miyuki attended college, insisted that if the 28 chefs at Okonomimura were given the same ingredients on the same day, they would produce 28 different versions. As someone with a fairly unrefined palate -- my cooking is limited to the barbecue grill -- I took him at his word.
Already seated at the L-shape bar were several Japanese, mostly tourists, who were taking pictures as Ono, wearing his signature red hachimaki, or headband, and his two assistants prepared the meals. The Hiroshima Carp baseball team played on a TV in the background.
Ono spread the batter in perfect circles on the hotplate counter in front of us, then piled on one ingredient after another: fish powder, cabbage, corn, bean sprouts, spring onion, pork, salt, pepper, egg, cheese, then noodles. (In much of Japan, especially Osaka, which vies with Hiroshima for the okonomiyaki crown, the dish is made without noodles.) Finished in less than 10 minutes, it is topped with a brown sauce and, if desired, a special mayonnaise.
The taste is a mix of incongruous flavors and consistencies: The crepe is crisp but the noodles remain somewhat softer; the pork is salty but the sauce tangy and a touch sweet; and most of the strongest flavors are balanced by the cabbage and bean sprouts.
When I asked Ono what's the most important thing in making a good okonomiyaki, he talked about the freshness of cabbage. But to me, it was The Flip, the deft turn of the piled-up creation so that the pork and noodles go to the bottom and the crepe ends up on top.
Indeed, okonomiyaki can be used as a convenient icebreaker for Americans who are, say, invited to the Japanese home of a family that does not speak much English. They can be entertained by simply watching a beginner like me try -- and fail -- to master The Flip, turning the glorious dish into a splattered mess. Eating the creation can also be a challenge, because it is traditionally done with only a small metal spatula and is scooped directly off the hotplate. This can produce awkward bites and burned tongues.
Ono, 41, who began learning the craft from his father at 16, has seen it all. Serving Americans is difficult, he said, because they are picky eaters who often will not try octopus or declare they are vegetarians. Still, Ono's menu features an "American" version that is made with, of all things, hot dogs. Ironically, it is meant to appeal to the Japanese, who find it exotic.
-- David Nakamura
Daimarudo is on the fourth floor of Okonomimura, 5-13 Shintenchi, Naka-ku, Hiroshima. For information about Hiroshima and traveling in Japan, check the City of Hiroshima Web site (www.city.hiroshima.jp/index-E.html) or the Japan National Tourist Organization (212-757-5640, www.jnto.go.jp).