What are okonomiyaki? I would have simply answered that they were Japanese pancakes and that they were a specialty of Osaka. On one visit to Tokyo, we had them at a specialty restaurant with purpose-built okonomiyaki griddles. When we hosted a Japanese student, she made them for us once, I think. Or maybe just told us about them.
"Part omelet, part crepe, okonomiyaki (pronounced oh-ko-no-mi-yaki) is to Hiroshima what deep-dish pizza is to Chicago. Layered like a lasagna, it is as customizable as its Italian cousin and is as much a part of this Japanese port’s identity as its notoriety as the first city to be hit by a nuclear weapon."
Okonomiyaki (from Wikipedia)
Okonomiyaki restaurants sometimes appear in recent Japanese novels I've read. Several scenes in Keigo Higashino's A Midsummer's Equation take place in such a restaurant, where the owner, Muroi, tells his story:
"'I was born up here,' Muroi told him. 'But when I was in middle school, my family moved down south to Osaka. There was this fantastic okonomiyaki place down the street from us there, and it was always my dream to have a restaurant like that of my own.' Muroi stirred a bowl of batter while he talked. His hands moved with an effortlessness that bespoke long years of practice.'" (p. 172).In today's L.A.Times I read much more about this Japanese dish and the special sauce that normally accompanies it. The article is "War can change what we eat. Just ask Hiroshima."
Though my sense that the dish is an Osaka specialty is partly right, okonomiyaki were invented in Hiroshima after the war:
"Before the war, the savory crepes — whose lineage can be traced to Chinese pancakes known as jianbing — were sold as kids’ snacks throughout Hiroshima. Then, after 1945, war widows anxious to make ends meet started opening okonomiyaki stalls and some converted rooms in their homes into small restaurants.
"They threw in whatever ingredients they could get their hands on, such as oysters and squid and soba noodles cooked by their fellow stall owners, along with ration ingredients provided by the U.S. occupiers. The elaboration was all well and good, because okonomiyaki literally means 'whatever you like — grilled,' and in the lean years after the war, cheap one-dish meals were all many Hiroshimans could afford."The Osaka connection came later. Though there are around 1,000 okonomiyaki shops in Hiroshima now, "Osaka, which has its own distinct style of okonomiyaki ... can call itself Japan’s okonomiyaki capital, with 2,850 eateries."
The L.A. Times article includes a fascinating description of the Otafuku Corporation, which makes the special sauce used for okonomiyaki throughout Japan. It profiles a chef that work for the corporation at their iconic, egg-shaped okonomiyaki museum. The chef develops new recipes and also teaches at a cooking school where tourists, local home cooks, and restaurant cooks can learn new recipes and techniques for the now-traditional dish. The corporation hopes this way to assure a continued interest -- and thus a market -- for their product.
|From the L.A. Times:|
"Students learn how to make okonomiyaki at the Otafuku Sauce Co.’s
museum and cooking studio in Hiroshima."