Wednesday, November 4, 2009


Last night I was watching the Osaka episode of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations, a show that makes me pea-green with envy because really, all this guy does is wander the world, eating, drinking and getting paid for it. Oh, and smoking, which he was thrilled to be able to do in restaurants all over Osaka.

He does, however, delve into the history of the places he visits, and in this case it was fascinating. Osaka is known for its food, and in particular the practice of eating great quantities of it. This tradition was a side effect of a piece of 16th-century legislation that forbade the rising merchant class from building showy houses or wearing fancy clothes. So they started going out and eating (and drinking) themselves silly, and along the way, invented a spectacular array of food that goes very well with beer.

Mowgli joined me partway into the program, and I can't quite recall, but I think he wasn't actually on the couch with me when the segment on okonomiyaki started. Good thing, too, because first I blurted out "okonomiyaki!" and then, well, I kind of spazzed out because the memories of eating this awesome food in Japan came flooding back.

Mr. Bourdain didn' touch on the roots of the dish, but my understanding is that it was born of necessity just before or after World War II, when there was a lot of flour and cabbage about, but not much wheat. The following description (from this site) backs me up:

"The roots of Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki lie in something called "Issen youshoku" (one-penny Western food) that spread across western Japan like cheap candy before the war. Wheat flour was mixed with water and spread in a circle on a griddle. Chopped green onions and such were sprinkled on top, then the concoction was folded in half and served. This proved to be an extremely popular dish. As the name implied, you could buy it for one "sen" (1/100 of a yen), which at the time could purchase two large lollipops."

But that's Hiroshima-style: layered ingredients. In Osaka, everything is mixed together before being plopped on the grill -- in front of you, if you're at one of the countless okonomiyaki restaurants in Japan. You can cook them yourself, but the staff are experts. Here's a video of how that works, complete with helpful subtitles to let you know what's going on, and a bed of peppy Japanese pop:

So you might be wondering: What does that crazy word mean? Okonomi means "what you like" and yaki means "grilled." And now I have a major craving for what I like, grilled.


  1. Okonomiyaki is sooo good, I'll agree. My (Japanese) aunt makes it all the time, but in what you describe as Hiroshima-style. Thanks for sharing the roots of its development in WWII - I'd never known that.

  2. Oh you lucky, lucky woman. I've made it from a mix a few times, but it's never as good as the restaurant or home-cooked kind.

    We have a similar wartime/hard times food here in the U.S.: frybread. For an essay I wrote about that, go here:

  3. If I am not completely mistaken, I have a recipe which sounds like your description of Osaka style. It was given to me by your brother when he made it for me and I fell in love with it. I think we need an Okonomyaki party during the holidays. A mix? I don't think so. From scratch only!
    Mango Mama

  4. Ooh, that's good to know. I'll be sure to pack some fish flakes!


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