Saturday, November 7, 2009
Hiroshima is only known for a few things. Perhaps the most important one is okonomiyaki. Hiroshima okonomiyaki stares Tokyo okonomiyaki right in the eyes and spits in its face, all the while sitting atop a fried egg and a bed of noodles.
Just across from Hiroshima Station is a building called, quite appropriately, Full Force. On the 6th floor of Full Force is an okonomiyaki stadium. I've been to a lot of stadiums in the last few weeks. Usually I seek them out, having read about them on one or another seedy food blog or forum. But this time I didn't go looking for it, it came looking for me.
I stumbled into Full Force, following what could only be a higher power's unseen hand, and hit the button for floor 6. As soon as I entered, I was confronted with a photo wall covered with more than a dozen portraits of different okonomiyaki. Short ones, tall ones, fat ones, skinny ones, egg on top, egg on bottom, cheese in the middle, festooned in oysters, prawns, squid, they were all there.
How these places survive, I don't know. In no other place I've been to has anyone had the brilliant idea of putting 12-15 different restaurants serving the exact same food in a single location, most optimally at the top of a very tall building and with minimal signage outside. This is what the Japanese call a “stadium.”
Walking into an okonomiyaki stadium requires one to be nimble of the feet and mind. As soon as I entered, men behind the grill start shouting at me. I don't know what they are shouting of course, but I assume it's something along the lines of “Our okonomiyaki is delicious! Put this in you face, stat!” Then the woman working the counters start chiming in. “Welcome!” (I think) in improbably high-pitched squeals. As soon as I start inching towards the next restaurant in line, their staff start shouting at me too, while the first stand's staff is still shouting at me. The restaurants aren't in their own rooms and are separated by only a small partition, to facilitate easier shouting.
For those of us who like to get the lay of the land before we choose our dinners, the shouting can present quite a problem. It can be difficult to really examine a menu or the food of other diners when you're being shouted at by no less than four to six people that are standing less than two feet away. In an okonomiyaki stadium getting a critical mass of diners is crucial, as most people just go to the shop that has the most people already there. In many cases in Japan, it's a safe bet to just get into the longest line if you want the tastiest food. So if you're a straggler in a stadium, expect to get harangued—they really need you.
I finally sat down at a place and was presented with an English menu. This is the nice part of looking different to all of the natives, I don't have to bother telling them that I don't understand because they already assume that I don't. I ordered the special okonomiyaki, not to be confused with the super special okonomiyaki (contains double prawns and double squid) or the autumnal maple okonomiyaki (contains kimchi and oysters).
Now I've decided to retract everything I previously said about how great it is to make your own okonomiyaki. It's actually much greater to watch some good looking young man with a towel wrapped around his head make an okonomiyaki for you on a grill that you're practically on top of. This is point one in Hiroshima okonomiyaki's favor.
Next, they ask you if you want Japanese or Chinese noodles. Always the ramen fan, I opt for Chinese noodles which they proceed to make a nest of and leave on the grill for a while while the put together the rest of the pancake. Hiroshima okonomiyaki has a much higher vegetable ratio than Tokyo okonomiyaki, with cabbage and bean sprouts making a visible appearance. This is nice because one begins to worry about fiber intake in a land that is constantly pimping croquettes and rice balls in our direction.
As he was making my okonomiyaki, the grill man asked me if I had ever had it before.
Yes, I replied, in Tokyo.
He makes a sour face. Then, Hiroshima-style? he asks, hopefully.
No, there were no noodles, I said regretfully.
He shakes his head. Kansai-style, pffft. That barely deserves to be called okonomiyaki.
This conversation takes nearly fifteen minutes as it's comprised of about four words and the rest he has to be acted out ala charades, while I try to guess what he's saying and the rest of the restaurant patrons try and help out by shouting out whatever English words they know. Once I finally figure it out and we both agree that Tokyo blows, my okonomiyaki is nearly ready.
It has gone from being six inches high in the early stages to a neat 2 inches. He cracks an egg on the grill and flips the rest of the pancake on top, somehow doing it in such a way that the nest of noodles end up on top. It takes deft hands to do this, you can tell that this guy has been working an okonomiyaki grill for a while.
He swipes the okonomiyaki sauce onto the top, lays out powdered seaweed and sesame seeds on top and then slides it over to me, still on the grill. The rest of the patrons then spend a while conversing about whether or not I'll be able to eat it with chopsticks and instructing me to add wasabi (another point in Hiroshima's favor) and Japanese mayo. To facilitate the easier making of criss-cross patterns with the mayonnaise, the bottle comes with four holes so as to make four perpendicular lines with each squeeze. Ingenious.
As it turns out, Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki is even more delicious than its brethren in Tokyo and Osaka. And, according to the grill man, my skills with the chopstick are “very good” (said with an incredulous face, of course).
See you tomorrow? One of the patrons, obviously a regular, asked as I was leaving. If only, my friend, if only. But this stomach waits for no one and has a ramen stadium in Fukuoka to get to.