Okonomiyaki: the food that helped rebuild Hiroshima

What constitutes the atomic bombing experience? It’s not only what happened when the bomb was dropped. It also includes the post-war years and how the survivors of the bombing got through them. Three years ago, Zenpei Kunimoto, 54, a city hall employee, began talking to students who visit Hiroshima on school excursions about the history of okonomiyaki, a famous local dish, so they could better understand the atomic bombing. It was one way a person who did not experience the bombing directly could convey the experience to young people. The following is Mr. Kunimoto’s description of his program as described to writers for Peace Seeds, a children’s newspaper produced by teens in Hiroshima and published periodically in the Chugoku Shimbun.

I tell the junior high and high school students who come to Hiroshima on school excursions about okonomiyaki. The title of my presentation is “Why Okonomiyaki in Hiroshima?”

Take a look at this illustration. I drew it 23 years ago, and it was published in the Chugoku Shimbun. It’s a scene from the old Okonomimura (Okonomi Village) before it was torn down and rebuilt. A dozen customers crowded into a small shop are engaged in lively small talk about things like the Hiroshima Carp baseball team. I’m originally from Yamaguchi Prefecture and first came to live in Hiroshima when I went to work. I was amazed that friendly restaurants like this could be found in the middle of a city of 1 million people. And they are everywhere. It’s said there are 900 okonomiyaki restaurants in the city. That may be more than the number of mailboxes. I wanted to find out why okonomiyaki was so popular.

The other day a group of high school students came to Hiroshima from Obihiro in Hokkaido. When I asked them what food was famous in Obihiro, they said, “Pork bowl.” Apparently, they use quite a bit of meat. It’s piled up so high it nearly overflows the bowl. Raising livestock is a major industry in Obihiro, and the pork is delicious. I could tell how proud the students were of the delicious pork bowl in Obihiro. There is a history behind every locally famous food.

Take Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki. It’s the pride of Hiroshima. It requires a unique cooking method and special sauce, but the basic ingredients can be found anywhere in Japan. Unlike the pork bowl in Obihiro, no one particular ingredient stands out. It’s an extraordinary dish created from ordinary ingredients. This aspect of Hiroshima’s food culture is the product of the resourcefulness of the people and Hiroshima’s history, and it’s something the city should be proud of.

Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki came into being about 50 years ago. It developed from issen yoshoku, (one-penny Western food), which consisted of a thin pancake made from flour and water on which green onions, bonito flakes, and other ingredients were placed. It was folded in half and garnished with a mixture of soy sauce and Worcestershire sauce. It was first sold as a snack for kids at candy stores and other shops before the war.

One sen is 1/100 of a yen. I suppose the idea was that you could get sauce-flavored Western-style food very cheap. It was made not only in Hiroshima but throughout western Japan. There are similar types of grilled foods in China and other countries. I don’t know exactly where issen yoshoku came from, but Ujina was an important naval port from around the time of the Sino-Japanese War, so my guess is that some of the soldiers who shipped out for China from there popularized issen yoshoku after they came back.

So what happened to issen yoshoku after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima? That’s the key point.

The atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima at 8:15 a.m. on August 6, 1945 destroyed the city, and by the end of that year about 140,000 people had died. The survivors are still suffering from the effects of the radiation.

All the homes within a 2-kilometer radius of the hypocenter were completely destroyed and burned to ash. Some of the homes a little further away were tilted over from the force of the blast, but they could still be lived in. In many of those homes, family members who had gone to work or were involved in the demolition of buildings were killed in the bombing while the women and children who stayed home were spared.

How could the people who survived go on living? First of all, they had nothing to eat. There was a severe food shortage, unlike anything we can imagine today. Some women made a living by cooking issen yoshoku on griddles or in frying pans on top of charcoal stoves. Mothers were too busy to prepare three meals a day, so hungry kids took whatever leftover vegetables or rice were on hand to the women who made issen yoshoku who would grill them with a thin pancake, and that was their meal.

People found a home away from home at issen yoshoku shops where they gathered with their friends. I call them Hiroshima’s “second kitchen.” In the difficult days after the bombing, the people there looked out for each other.

Kids, and later adults as well, brought all sorts of ingredients to the women of the issen yoshoku shops to have them grilled. In the process, they learned things. They realized that cabbage was the tastiest vegetable. The cabbage in those days was tough, but when it was grilled it had just the right sweetness. Adding locally grown green onions gave the dish a nice flavor. If you wanted meat, thinly sliced pork, the cheapest available, was best. It had just the right amount of fat, and when you grilled it, it became crisp. People tried various ingredients, eliminating some and keeping others. The pancake gradually became bigger, and the dish evolved from issen yoshoku to okonomiyaki.

Okonomiyaki gradually spread to the city center. Buildings began to go up in the bombed-out city. Some people who had lost their livelihoods as a result of the bombing pulled carts from which they sold oden (Japanese hotchpotch) and ramen. Some of those vendors began selling okonomiyaki, which had only recently been created downtown.

Businesses in the city center catered to the general public, and customers demanded hearty, tasty meals. Cooks perfected their grilling methods, and okonomiyaki sauce was developed. These shops in the center of the city played a major role in establishing Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki as a marketable product.

Incidentally, now it’s standard to add soba or udon noodles to okonomiyaki, but that didn’t start until the late 1950s when the economy began to grow. Of course, udon (noodles) adds volume to the okonomiyaki, so it could no longer be folded in half. People started eating it flat the way we do now after noodles were added.

So that’s how Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki was created. It came about while people who were suffering hardships as a result of the atomic bombing gathered around a hot griddle to talk among themselves, both the cooks and the customers. I believe okonomiyaki played a role behind the scenes, helping rebuild Hiroshima and supporting the city’s residents in their daily lives. That’s why eating okonomiyaki is an essential part of the lives of the people of Hiroshima.

Zenpei Kunimoto
Born in 1954 in Yamaguchi Prefecture. Can’t tolerate very hot foods. Nevertheless always eats okonomiyaki directly from the griddle. Is particular about the way he cooks okonomiyaki on his griddle at home, but okonomiyaki made by his family tastes better. For the past three years has talked to visiting students about the atomic bombing and showed them how to make okonomiyaki. Employed in the city’s Atomic Bomb Survivors Relief Department.

(Originally published on March 2, 2009)

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