Okonomiyaki Hiroshima Style — Beyond a Hearty Pancake
London has bangers and mash. Milan has Ossobuco. Seville has Jamón Ibérico and Hiroshima has Okonomiyaki — a signature dish often described as Hiroshima’s soul food. Okonomiyaki is believed to have grown in popularity after the A-bomb when food was scarce in the city.
With an absolute craze for trying local food, my first dinner in the City of Hiroshima was to try the best Okonomiyaki Hiroshima style, reputed to be Hiroshima’s soul food. I was famished after a day’s sightseeing and I wanted a place where I could relax and enjoy my meal.
In this post, I share my experiences of an evening at an Okonomiyaki eatery along with the history of how this humble dish became one to define the identity of Hiroshima and its people.
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I arrived at Hiroshima train station from Miyajima that evening and I made my way to Hiroshima Station Building ASSE. The second-floor of the building was home to several Izakaya, ramen restaurants and open-bar type okonomiyaki eateries with bar stools around a large rectangular hotplate. It was not an overly busy evening as it was past 7:30 pm. I was only too happy to go along when a cheery-faced woman beckoned me to sit at the ‘bar’. There were four other people who were waiting on their okonomiyaki which were being prepared. The enticing scent of the grill fills the air and my adventure with the flavour of Hiroshima’s favourite dish was about to begin.
Okonomiyaki Hiroshima Style
As I sat, the ‘chef’ acknowledged my presence with a nod. He proceeded to dole out two ladle-full of batter onto the hotplate, spread them out into two 8-inch circles, side by side, just like how one would make crêpes or pancakes. After a couple of minutes, he placed a mountain full of cabbage, followed by a handful of beansprouts on the hotplate. He pointed to oysters and slices of pork, asking me in Japanese what I would prefer. I pointed to the oysters. He added some shrimps to the hotplate as well.
I was not fluent in Japanese then, (still not :)!) and just about said “hai” (yes), “onegaishimasu” (please) and “arigatogozaimashita” (thank you) in response to everything that was said to me.
While the vegetables, oysters and shrimps were steaming away on the hotplate, he placed a large tangle of ramen noodles alongside. After a few minutes, he tossed the ramen noodles, and skilfully flipped the pancakes over, placing it over the cabbage, and beansprouts while waiting on the ramen. He then went on to crack an egg onto the grill, spreading it into a circle, almost the same size as the crêpe.
I watched astutely as he brought all of the ingredients together into an edible sculpture. He flipped the cabbage, sprouts and crêpe, bringing the pancake to rest at the bottom while placing the ramen noodles over the vegetables. Finally, the ramen noodles were topped with oysters and shrimps. The whole ‘mountain’ of food was expertly layered — crêpe, egg, sprouts, cabbage, ramen, oysters and shrimps. It looked delicious and the aroma made me salivate as I was already way too hungry by now.
However, the ‘chef’ wasn’t quite done yet! He decorated the ‘mount’ with a generous amount in chopped green spring onions, dried bonito flakes and nori seaweed. He brought over two squeezy bottles of sauces — one Japanese mayonnaise and the other a sweet smoky brown sauce. I said ‘itadakimasu’ (a polite expression that means “I receive this food”) and dug into the hearty savoury crunchy pancake filled with simple yet scrumptious vegetables and seafood, oozing over with creamy delicious sauce. It was hot, delicious and filling. The brown sauce was unusually delicious, more like the Worcestershire sauce we have in the UK but sweet and less salty. I had not tasted anything like it before.
That was my first experience of the legendary Okonomiyaki Hiroshima style and I am convinced it was the best one I had tried.
Pro-tip: You could ask for soba noodles or udon instead of ramen noodles.
Hiroshima is popular for its oysters, harvested in the Seto Inland Sea. Hiroshima oysters have small shells, but give large, plump and rich in flavour meat.
Okonomiyaki — Hiroshima’s Soul Food
Described as Hiroshima’s soul food, Okonomiyaki has been colloquially called the ‘Japanese pizza’ or ‘Japanese pancake’. It is popular all over Japan but to attribute such a simplistic description fails to conjure the unique delectable okonomiyaki experience. It tastes nothing like a pizza! Just as London has bangers and mash. Milan has Ossobuco. Seville has Jamón Ibérico and Hiroshima has Okonomiyaki — a signature dish of Hiroshima. This humble dish that grew in popularity alongside Hiroshima as the city rose from the ashes became one to define the identity of the city of Hiroshima and its people.
The Moving History of the Soul Food of Hiroshima
Hiroshima’s beloved pancake has its roots going back to the Edo period (1683 — 1868). The crêpe like pancakes were served as a special dessert at Buddhist ceremonies called Funoyaki. The dessert evolved during the Meiji period (1868 — 1912) and continued to evolve into a dish in the 1930s.
The pre World War II dish was known as “issen yoshoku”, meaning ‘Western food for a penny.’ At this time, the pancake was filled with green spring onions and dried shrimps or flakes of fish, folded over and served to children as a snack.
Then, the unthinkable happened on August 6, 1945. An atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. It instantly turned the peaceful and calm city into a charred wasteland, bringing on an acute food shortage. Some salvaged metal pieces from the rubble, turning it to a hot plate.
The people of Hiroshima had to be creative. Rice became scarce. They had to make do with whatever food they could find along with post-war rations that they received from the United States. Using the makeshift hot plate, they cooked issen yoshoku, and filled it in its many variations.
A city who was told that nothing would grow for 70 years, Hiroshima rose from its ashes. With reconstruction gathering momentum, cheap eateries began to sell the humble pancake. They added whatever ingredients that were available such as cabbage, eggs, soba and locally caught oysters and shrimps. The residents made the humble pancake a more substantial dish to sustain themselves as they began to rebuild their city along with their lives.
The idea that you could have variations, anything you like on a grilled pancake is how the dish earned its appropriate name, “Okonomiyaki. It literally means “whatever you want” (okonomi), “grilled” (yaki). The popularity of the grilled pancake filled with substantial ingredients grew to be a popular dish among all of Hiroshima’s social classes and age groups. Okonomiyaki Hiroshima style became the cherished hearty food of the local people and a symbol of their resilience and spirit, hence proudly known as “Hiroshima’s soul food.”
The Popularity of Okonomiyaki
The humble okonomiyaki is well-known throughout Japan especially in the Kansai region. Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe are all dotted with the culinary wonderland of okonomiyaki but Hiroshima holds an exclusive claim to fame. Hiroshima has more okonomiyaki restaurants per capita than any other region in the country.
While Kansai also dishes up tasty okonomiyaki but it all depends on which you prefer.
In the Kansai style okonomiyaki, the pancake is made from thicker dough. The ingredients — sprouts, cabbage and pork belly or seafood are mixed together. The Kansai okonomiyaki does not have soba. Most refer to the Kansai version as a ‘snack’ because it is light and less filling.
There are many variations to okonomiyaki. If you don’t like pork, have locally caught oysters instead. Have a vegetarian option with soy meat. Some restaurants offer slices of conger eel or squid as the main ingredient.
Having a choice in what you like in the dish is key to the popularity of okonomiyaki. The dish can be prepared even at home with whatever leftovers are in the fridge. While technically, okonomiyaki can be created anywhere by whomsoever, the okonomiyaki Hiroshima style is a much more complicated version. The Hiroshima okonomiyaki chefs go through year long apprenticeship to ensure the way the ingredients behave on the hotplate, the complex construction takes place the way it should along with the skilful flips. It all happens in front of you as you are seated by the teppan.
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For a good, overall experience of Hiroshima food culture, you may want to join a local tour guide where you could explore the local drinking spots and immerse in the local Japanese culture. Includes a visit to an Izakaya where a chef will create your personal dish of Okonomiyaki on an iron grill in front of you, for you to try.
Check availability and book your experience on the Bar Hopping Food Tour in Hiroshima.
Where to Try Okonomiyaki Hiroshima Style
You don’t have to go too far anywhere in Hiroshima before you are greeted with the welcoming sweet aroma of okonomiyaki permeating the air. You may or may not wish to try the legendary dish, but it is worth giving the dish a try at least once when you are in Hiroshima. If you have tried it, you may want to learn more about the dish. In either case, here are some options for you:
1 | Okosta Okonomiyaki Experience
If you would love to know how to create it yourself, you may want to sign-up to Okosta Okonomiyaki Experience at the Hiroshima Station, a cooking studio by Otafuku, who are the leading manufacturer of the sweet okonomiyaki sauce based in Hiroshima. Okosta welcomes all nationalities and cultures while also offering halal and vegetarian options.
1-2, Matsubara-cho, Minamiku,
* 2min to walk from JR Hiroshima station
2 | Okonomimura
With over 2000 eateries around Hiroshima, the city has a particular building in the heart of town which is home to 25 of them. The Okonomimura (Okonomi Village) is a four-storey labyrinth of resolutely unfancy space dedicated to Hiroshima’s soul food that greets you with its sweet savoury steam of okonomiyaki.
5-13 Shintenchi, Naka-ku, Hiroshima
3 | Tokugawa Restaurant
Though a popular restaurant, Tokugawa restaurant really is a hidden gem for its architectural and historical wealth. Located in Hiroshima’s Hesaka district, Tokugawa Restaurant dates back to early Meiji era, more than 140 years. A traditional Japanese wooden house with a sweeping black-tiled roof, modified to offer a sophisticated dining experience in a historical space.
At the Tokugawa Hesaka, a hot plate is brought to your table along with all the okonomiyaki ingredients. You are left to prepare your own dish and, if you are confused about anything, the waiter is always on hand to guide you.
Where: Tokugawa Restaurant
4-30-11 Hesakaoage, Higashi-ku, Hiroshima City
4 | Hiroshima Station Building ASSE
Located right next to the JR Hiroshima Station, the building is a department store but the second floor of the building is dedicated to okonomiyaki eateries and Izakaya. The eateries dedicated the people’s soul food has several variations offering Osaka style or Hiroshima style pancakes. Unless you wish to wait in line, try and avoid the queues at lunch time (between 12:00 and 14:00 p.m.) or early dinner time around 6:00 p.m.
Where: Hiroshima Station Building ASSE
2-37 Matsubaracho, 732-0822, Hiroshima, Japan
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With a multitude of places to choose from, the four listed above is just the tip of the iceberg. A fun way to go on an adventure seeking the best is to ask a local. Hiroshima-ite have their favourites and most will share their best restaurant with pride.
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So, when you visit Hiroshima, be sure to try the real okonomiyaki Hiroshima style, the pride and soul of the city.
Have an awesome time uncovering the ancient land of Japan.
Just me, Georgina in Miyajima Island, Hiroshima
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The Best Okonomiyaki Hiroshima Style first published at timelesstravelsteps.com