Deep in Okonomiyaki

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Kelly Nuibe hams it up in front of the okonomiyaki joint. (Photo by Anne Awaya)

By Anne Awaya

The other day, after a fellow ALT and I bought her Studio Ghibli tickets, we thought, “Why not, let’s get some dinner while we’re at it.” We opted for okonomiyaki, Hiroshima’s crowning glory, at a previously visited restaurant near the train station. As we vaguely knew that it was in an alleyway near Caspa, we ended up on a rather dark and deserted street. I was all for turning around, but my friend spotted a dimly lit okonomiyaki lantern banner. Next to it was a menu with seemingly overpriced items. The wall had remnants of graffiti. “How about this place?” Kelly asked.

“I don’t know, it looks kind of shady,” I replied. However, both being chill people, we decided to enter. After parking our bikes haphazardly in a side lot, we slid open the door, the type of door to a private residence.

It was not too far from a private residence. We found ourselves in a room the size of an ALT bedroom. A single iron griddle loomed before us, around which four stools could be arranged. Off to the side, long white papers hung, with hand-written kanji on them. “Konbanwa,” I ventured. Surprisingly enough, a lady, presumably the cook, materialized from some back room containing tatami and a T.V. We sat down at a side table and then reconsidered. Why were we going to sit at a mere side table when the place was empty except for us? So we relocated to the stools in front of the iron griddle.

We gawked at the paper signs, which indicated that prices ranged from 500 to 800 yen. Kelly ordered a niku (meat) and vegetables portion, while I expressly asked for one with tako (octopus) in it. The cook informed me that the tako portion automatically came with niku, which was no confounding dilemma. I gladly accepted. Apparently there were also “large” portions that came with yakisoba (fried noodles), as opposed to just batter and cabbage.

The cook began to prepare our portions. They were smaller than expected, so we ordered a large tako and niku one to share within a few minutes. The cook mildly gasped at our pig-like appetites. As we waited for our food, I asked her how long the restaurant had been in business. 50 years. She gestured at a graying lady behind her. Obaachan (grandma), as she called her, had started the business. The obaachan was relaxing on a small couch with another figure, which I could not make out clearly, watching T.V. It was definitely a family business. They lived there. I explained that we were English teachers who lived nearby. I also threw in some trivia about how my obaachan had a family business in Tokyo, back in the day.

Our portions cooked fast. Now, here’s the kicker. The cook handed us the same spatulas she had been using to fry the okonomiyaki. I stared at her, waiting for some indication that we should use the spatulas specifically for dividing our portions into bite-size pieces. But she stared right back, smiling expectantly. Somehow, it occurred to me that it might be rude to ask for a plate and chopsticks. “Konoyouni (Like this),” I asked, gesturing at the grill and spatula. She nodded, as if there was no other way to eat okonomiyaki. So we dug right in, with our spatulas. Off the steaming grill. “Good bite,” said Kelly. She ate hers with amai (sweet) sauce, I ate mine with karai (spicy) sauce. Sizzling. Fresh. Delicious.