If the Japanese had invented pizza, then I’m guessing it’d probably be something similar to okonomiyaki (oh-KOH-no-me-YUH-key) – a pan-fried dish with a pancake-like “crust,” topped with various ingredients. Instead of tomato sauce, it’s drizzled with a savory okonomiyaki sauce. A personal pan “pizza” of okonomiyaki – stuffed with noodles, cabbage, pork and more.
Okonomi means “as you like,” and yaki means “grilled.” According to Honolulu Hiroshima Kenjin Kai president Ken Saiki, the “grilled-as-you-like-it” creation was invented in Hiroshima after World War II when scarce food supplies forced locals to get crafty. Since then, the flavorful blend has spread throughout the world, finding a place in Hawaii. Okonomiyaki is also associated with the Kansai area of Japan. I had my first bite of okonomiyaki at the Ohana Festival earlier this month, where Ken’s group had been working hard at making them. Our decision to try okonomiyaki was based on it having the longest line of hungry people. So we figured, it must be good and worth the wait!
Under the tented booth, an army of volunteers (all with ties to Hiroshima) worked voraciously in factory line efficiency to keep up with the high demand. Those at the beginning prepped the ingredients (eggs, cabbage, pork, green onions, noodles) while those in the middle did the cooking. The volunteers at the end assembled the various parts before sending the plates off to be devoured by customers. A consistent sizzling sound came from each grill, getting loud then soft then loud again, as the cook placed more raw ingredients onto the heated surface. It was this heat that eventually calmed the ingredients to a hushed sizzle.VIDEO: Hawaii’s take on the traditional Japanese dish, okonomiyaki.
We got to the front of the line, where a smiling lady wearing a hairnet waited behind the counter, and before even finishing my order, a warm styrofoam plate was placed into my hands. The ingredients used as toppings usually varies, depending on the region. Some put octopus inside while others, like this one, use pork. No okonomiyaki is the same. We probably scarfed down the entire plate within a few minutes, and all the while, I kept comparing it to an Asian-flavored pizza; one that’s WAY more authentic than any you’ll find at a pizza place. Actually, this one looked a lot like a crepe. Either way, it was a wonderful blend of sweet and salty, crunchy and fluffy that kept me full for the rest of the day. Eyes on the prize. Volunteers whip up an authentic Hiroshima dish in Hawaii.
If you want to try okonomiyaki next time you’re in Hawaii, then you’re best bets are Okonomiyaki Chiba in Waikiki or Shirokiya in Ala Moana. The cool thing about the Waikiki restaurant is that you watch the chef cook it right in front of you on a big flat teppan, or grill. It’s a little on the pricier side, but each dish usually comes with a soup, appetizer, salad and dessert. Shirokiya will have an in-house chef whipping up these tasty creations every couple of months, whenever they have Hiroshima-themed dishes on the menu.
Okonomiyaki is just one of the many flavors of the islands that visitors can try while they’re here. Despite it being one of those hard-to-pronounce dishes, it’s the incredible blend of ingredients that’s still quite hard to believe. Eggs and pork? Noodles and crepes? Thanks to the creativity of those living in Hiroshima decades ago, okonomiyaki has made its way to the islands and has become a part of the local cuisine and culture that make Hawaii so unique.