Delicious Hiroshima - Day 2

Delicious Hiroshima - Day 2

Mitchan Sohonten - Okonomiyaki

The next day, our first destination was Mitchan Sōhonten, Hiroshima's most famous Okonomiyaki restaurant.

Okonomiyaki is a savory pancake stuffed with cabbage and meat or seafood, but in Hiroshima they have a special way of making it, which is called Hiroshima Okonomiyaki.

Instead of a thick pancake with the fixings mixed in, Hiroshima Okonomiyaki starts with a thin crepe.

To this a huge mound of cabbage is added, followed by meat or seafood, fried noodles, and an egg (plus sauce and seaweed flakes - there's a lot going on).

Mitchan is credited with inventing Hiroshima Okonomiyaki, the city's signature dish. The shop started out in the make-or-break post-WWII years as a food stall selling small crepes stuffed with scallions and wrapped in newspaper.

It was a father and son operation and the son, whose nickname was Mitchan, came up with a bunch of ideas to make their product more attractive to customers. Eventually, he alighted on the winning combination that was to become known as Hiroshima Okonomiyaki.

I was drawn to Mitchan's history but was afraid that it might be too famous, the kind of place that ends up as a tourist trap.

The taxi driver on the way there assured me that locals do in fact eat there, and I was pleased to see a crowd (without cameras or guidebooks) already forming in front of the restaurant a few minutes before it opened.

As it turns out, Mitchan is not content to rest on its laurels; it takes the preparation of Hiroshima Okonomiyaki very seriously.

At ordinary Okonomiyaki restaurants, customers often make the pancakes themselves on hotplates at the table. But Hiroshima Okonomiyaki is far too complicated to be made by amateurs.

The chefs at Mitchan spend years honing their skills.

And they never graduate from chopping cabbage (Mitchan goes through 200kg of cabbage on a busy day); the manager rotates them so they stay in touch with every stage of the process.

What impressed me the most about the Hiroshima Okonomiyaki at Mitchan is that every layer is just right: the cabbage still pert and juicy, the noodles al dente, and the egg firm yet not rubbery.

And still the chefs make it all look casual and fun.

Tsutafuji - Ramen

After lunch, we returned to the coast, this time heading west. Our destination: Onomichi, a seaside town with a high concentration of old temples and a general atmosphere of days long past. It's often used as a set for movies (most notably Yasujirō Ozu's Tokyo Story). But what really draws visitors is the ramen.

Ambling around the temples we saw a smattering of other tourists here and there. When we passed a ramen shop, we saw a whole line of them.

Onomichi ramen uses a soy sauce seasoned stock that has also been flavored with a variety of small fish pulled from the Inland Sea.

To this a layer of liquid lard is added - which admittedly sounds awful - but makes for a thicker, richer soup. The noodles are thin and round.

The toppings are classic: a handful of scallions, bamboo shoots, and a few pieces of tender pork.

Beyond that, ramen joints here are classified into two categories: the ones that go by Onomichi ramen (the new ones jumping on the bandwagon) and the ones that go by chuka-soba ("Chinese noodles," the word for ramen throughout much of the 20th century before it became a thing).

The place I wanted to visit, Tsutafuji, falls into the latter category. Like Mitchan, Tsutafuji dates to the post-WWII era; it's been in business for 60 plus years.

It also originated as a street stall before upgrading to a brick-and-mortar shop. There are still only about a dozen seats, and the kitchen is smaller than the one in my one-bedroom Tokyo apartment.

It's a scruffy place (and that's being polite). But from my experience, this is generally the best sort of ramen shop. Others would seem to agree: There are dozens of celebrity signings on the wall.

The chef, who took over from his father, is a man of little words. He wears a towel twisted around his forehead to keep the sweat off his face (an air conditioner and several fans work overtime to counteract the two large boiling pots).

When the sole waitress brought my ramen to the counter, the soup came exactly to the lip of the bowl and not a drop is spilled.

It was hot and burned the roof of my mouth but it was delicious so I kept shoveling it in. (In my defense: Ramen is best eaten piping hot, before the noodles start to go limp)

"What's your secret?" I asked the chef, between mouthfuls.There isn't one: "I'm just trying to keep the original taste going. If people like that then I'm happy," he said.

There's definitely something attractive about that - about experiencing a particular time and place through food (in this case, a little seaside town circa 1950). From the centuries-old traditions of oysters and sake to the more recent invention of Hiroshima Okonomiyaki, Hiroshima offers plenty of opportunities to do just that.

Veronica Robertson is an American writer based in Tokyo since 2002. She writes about travel in Japan and Japanese culture for newspapers, magazines, and websites. Always in search of new tastes (and onsen), she's visited nearly every prefecture in Japan.

August 25, 2013

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