Okonomiyaki are really more like really thin pancakes….
“Nagata-ya,” said the tiny female valet as she tapped a map she was marking for us. We were checking into the ANA Crowne Plaza in Hiroshima and were asking about where to get the savory Japanese pancake for which that prefecture is so famous. This woman, all 5’2” high and 42 kilos strong, then proceeded to drag all four of our bags to our room…without using a luggage cart. We could barely handle two of our overstuffed, overweight and oversized American suitcases.
Our appetites, however, were no match for the oversized okonomiyaki (お好み焼き, pronounced “Oh-kono-me-ya-key”) served through Hiroshima. Often called a Japanese pancake, they are really more a crepe. In any case, the thinness of the dough simply serves as the foundation for oh so much more. “Okonomi” in Japanese means “as you like,” referring to the many permutations of ingredients from which a diner can choose to pile onto their grilled (“yaki”) goodness. The delicacy is most popular in Kansai (Osaka, Kyoto) or Hiroshima areas of Japan, but can be found throughout, including in Okinawa. The biggest regional differences are in the toppings and batter used, along with how they are arranged during cooking.
We had passed Nagata-ya the day before happily by accident, and decided to stop by on Saturday after enjoying Hiroshima’s peace park and museum. There was no line late Friday afternoon, but when we returned on Saturday about 3pm, there was a line stretching down the street in front of the store. We decided to stick it out, and ended up waiting probably about 20 minutes. The staff however, like in most of Japan, were amazingly and happily efficient, taking orders outside on electronic keypads, which were then transmitted wirelessly directly back to the kitchen. By the time we sat down at the grill-side counter, our okonomiyaki creation had already been started.
Okonomiyaki became very popular during WWII when rice was in very short supply. Due to the lack of other ingredients, a simpler version was made with more readily available fixings. Suffering harsh wartime conditions, the freshly grilled and hot wheat pancake was nutritious, filling, and inexpensive, all at the same time.
Osaka-style okonomiyaki mixes all the constituent ingredients, including shredded cabbage, egg, green onion and usually some type of protein, into the batter before grilling. The okonomiyaki in Hiroshima uses very similar elements, the biggest differences being that they are layered on top of the grilled batter rather than mixed within, and include a layer of noodles (soba or udon), and are often topped with a fried egg.
I am a huge fan of udon (my favorite soup in the whole wide world), so we elected for this starchy layer over soba. Looking up and down the grill, however, showed that we seemed to have made a faux pas of sorts: our order was the only one involving the pasta-like noodles. Seriously though, I think okonomiyaki would be better with soba. Nagata-ya offers a “jumbo” coke, and for once, Japan finally served an American-worthy sized soda!
What results is a meal about the size of a dinner plate, and the thickness of the deepest dish pizza you can imagine. It was impossible for me and Jody to imagine eating one each, so we ordered one to share, a move that seemed to surprise our waitress to some extent.
Part of the rather unique flavor of this Japanese culinary specialty comes from okonomi sauce that is brushed on during grilling. This glaze is best described as one part steak sauce, two parts BBQ, and one part tonkatsu sauce. Eating the okonomiyaki I was unsure that I really liked the sauce, and now weeks later, I still remain undecided. Although peculiar, it certainly didn’t stop me from devouring my portion of the savory pancake!
In Okinawa, okonomiyaki is called hirayachi (ヒラヤーチー) and is much simpler, using less components than those described above from other areas of Japan. However, Okinawans enjoy this dish mostly at home and cooked at home, so there are very few okonomiyaki restaurants in Okinawa. We have found one (and only one) since our trip to Hiroshima, but haven’t found a way or place to partake of the Ryukyuan version.
Yes, Japan is known for sushi, sashimi and even Kobe beef. But Okonomiyaki too is a uniquely, if much less known distinctive Japanese dish, and should be included as part of any culinary adventure to this corner of the Far East. Seek it out, whether you find yourself in Tokyo, Osaka, or Kyoto. But in Hiroshima, seek out Nagata-ya’s. You and your oversized American appetite will not be disappointed. But more importantly, you won’t be afraid to admit how much you really love these really thin pancakes!
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