Exploring Teppan-Yaki Culture in the Ship-Making City of Onomichi

Okonomiyaki”, located on the corner of the Onomichi shopping street, and has been running for 25 years. It enjoys popularity from a wide range of customers, from locals to tourists, all of whom come to experience and enjoy the Onomichi-style okonomiyaki served by the pair of seventy-something sisters who run the shop with their warm personalities. “Onomichi okonomiyaki” refers to the famous “Onomichi-yaki”, a version of okonomiyaki with chicken gizzards, fried on a ‘teppan’ iron plate. In addition, Murakami Okonomiyaki is the first
Onomichi-yaki shop.

Okonomiyaki Murakami: Exterior (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Okonomiyaki Murakami: Add the Squid Tempura of Shimatani Shokuhin. (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

The birthplace of “Onomichi-yaki”, a shop run by two sisters in their 70s

“We’ve been eating a lot of okonomiyaki for years now, as our parents also ran an okonomiyaki shop from the time we were junior high school students. They ran that shop, in a different location for about 50 years. In those days, the daytime meal on Saturdays, when there wasn’t a set school lunch provided for us, was generally okonomiyaki. Sometimes, a newspaper covered the dish, and it became a fairly common snack from that point forward,” said the younger of the two sisters, who mainly manages the shop.

Okonomiyaki Murakami: Ms. Kimiko Murakami (Left), Ms. Tsukimi (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Even today, the streets of Onomichi contain more Okonomiyaki shops than one could count. There is indeed a reason behind how the dish became such a standard in the city. For many years Onomichi has been an important city for the marine transport industry, as a stopover port for ships on the northern shipping route running between Osaka and Hokkaido. Onomichi lies against the Seto Inland Sea, and the area’s smaller waves and overall calmer waters make it well-suited for the ship-building industry. Given that that ship-building requires large quantities of iron, production of the material became widespread throughout the area. The ease at which these Teppan iron plates could be obtained during this time is attributed to this aspect of history, and a ‘Teppan-yaki’ food culture, wherein iron plates are used for grilling, was thus borne.

Okonomiyaki Murakami: Add Ingredients Such as Squid Tempura, Gizzards of Shimatani Shokuhin and Noodles. (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

“I do think that okonomiyaki is likely a direct product of this teppan-yaki culture. Back then, many customers would bring in eggs and their preferred ingredients, and ask for them to be grilled on the teppan. Some people would have us grill entrails up, which they would then enjoy as a snack with a beer. At some point, we began including grilled gizzards in our okonomiyaki. And this was referred to as ‘Onomichi-yaki.’ I think that this is what eventually grew to become the standard here in Onomichi.”

Okonomiyaki Murakami: A Famous Restaurant Operated by Sisters (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Gizzards and fried squid: The Deciding Components of “Onomichi-yaki”

Okonomiyaki is a type of savory pancake, one where ingredients such as seafood, meat, cabbage and other veggies, are added to a wheat flour-based batter, with everything eventually being grilled together. It is also the standard to eat it with sauce and/or mayonnaise on top. Even if we speak of a “standard” for the dish, the specific recipe is actually quite different for each region. In Osaka, for example, the ingredients and batter are mixed beforehand, and then grilled together. In Hiroshima Prefecture, where Onomichi is located, a thin layer of batter is grilled on its own, with other ingredients such as seafood, meat, vegetables, Chinese-style noodles, are layered on top and cooked together with the batter.

Okonomiyaki Murakami: Gizzards as Ingredient, Unique as Onomichi (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

“The trick to a delicious okonomiyaki is a thin batter, one with lots of water. You only want it thick enough to keep everything together. You spread the batter out thinly over the teppan, and then add a generous amount of bonito powder. Dried bonito shavings won’t cut it here, as fish powder does a better job of bringing out the savory juices. The vegetables used here are bean sprouts and cabbage. Fried Chinese-style noodles along with chicken gizzards and ‘ikaten’ fried squid is torn up and placed on top.

Squid Tempura of Shimatani Shokuhin (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Aside from the gizzards, the ingredient that can be said to be a special feature of Onomichi-style Okonomiyaki is the “Ikaten” fried squid. Ikaten is a processed food made by frying a thinly spread Japanese squid in oil. It is available at supermarkets at a reasonable price, and is a popular choice for a snack when paired with an alcoholic drink. It is also an absolutely indispensable ingredient for Onomichi-style okonomiyaki. “We use ikaten from ‘Onomichi Shimatani Shokuhin.’ It’s known as an ‘Shimashoku’ and it is delicious”, says the older sister.

Okonomiyaki Murakami: Cut the Okonomiyaki (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Once the ingredients are cooked, it is flipped over, and are then covered in a generous helping of sauce and sprinkled with green spring onions. The dish now complete, a spatula, which is the tool used to skillfully grill an okonomiyaki, is used to divide the dish into bite-sized portions. The fragrance of the burnt sauce wafts up, and the gizzards have a crunchy texture. And then there is the delicious, addicting, juicy flavor and aroma of the ikaten.

“Onomichi natives use neither plates nor chopsticks. We use the spatulas to eat directly from the teppan,” says the elder sister.

Okonomiyaki Murakami: Exterior (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Shimatani Shokuhin: Representative Mr. Shigeto Shimatani, Senior Managing Director Yoson Shimatani (From Right) (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

The backstory of Ikaten: the ingredient at the base of Onomichi-yaki

“Way back then, I also brought ingredients to a local okonomiyaki shop and asked them to cook it up for me. Sometimes I’d have the chefs grill rice cakes for me. For us, okonomiyaki is definitely a part of teppanyaki culture” says Shigeto Shimatani, a representative from the long-established food manufacturer Shimatani Shokuhin, which produces ikaten (fried squid) in Onomichi. He and Managing Director Yoson Shimatani spoke about the history of the product in Onomichi.

Shimatani Shokuhin: Squid Tempura (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

“It was around 60 years ago when ikaten first appeared in Onomichi, I believe. Given the city’s status as a stopover port along the northern shipping route, all sorts of quality ingredients from around the country made their way in here. With this kind of background, food processing industries also flourished. ‘Tsukudani’ shops that made dishes using kombu kelp and soy sauce were especially common. I remember there being many large examples of such shops when I was a child. At the time, Onomichi was thriving to such a degree that there was actually discussion of making it the prefectural capital. The merchants and banks were quite powerful, then, and shipped goods were being transported over the hills from Onomichi to Hiroshima. It really was a commercial powerhouse back then.”

Shimatani Shokuhin: Dried Squid Which Becomes Material of Squid Tempura (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

As Onomichi prospered as a commercial center on the northern shipping route, wealthy merchants with considerable financial assets began emerging, and eventually began making financial contributions to the area’s temples. This is said to be the reason why Onomichi has one of the highest densities of temples than any city in Japan. In the low-lying areas of the city near the sea, various shops stand along each other. In the hilly areas along the mountains, was where large residences were built. In the past, a “tea garden culture” flourished in the area, where tea rooms appeared in the hilly areas, welcoming artists, writers, and those with an overall interest in the arts in general. This is where we can find the roots of modern Onomichi, with its house and temples lining the sloped roads.

Townscape of Onomichi (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

“While all of this, dried Japanese squid was imported into Onomichi from Hokkaido. This led to the opening of shops that sold grilled and fried versions of them. Dried squid was grilled and sold at five yen per piece, and fried kombu was also available. Soon afterwards, roller-based technology made it possible to thinly spread out dried squid, and people started frying it. This was the beginning of ikaten as a product. It would have been around the year 1957. At the time, there were around 30 fried-dish shops, with some of them specializing in ikaten, if memory serves.”

Shimatani Shokuhin: Squid Tempura (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

And so, ikaten was thus born. It began being used not only as a standalone snack or side dish, but also as an ingredient for okonomiyaki. “Meat storage wasn’t an effective option in the age before widespread electricity, and refrigerators. I have heard that this is how ikaten became popular, as it will last long.”

Okonomiyaki Murakami: Completion of “Onomichi-yaki” (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

And so, teppan-yaki culture emerged from the diffusion of iron plates due to the ship-making industry of the time. Ikaten emerged from the appearance of the Japanese squid, as a food brought into the area via the northern shipping route. Onomichi-yaki, a distinctive dish unique to this port city, emerged from a background of being unable to preserve meat due to the absence of refrigerators of the time. With this knowledge of how the history of the city and its people led to the dish, why not visit Onomichi and try this soul food yourself? When you do, please do your best to emulate the locals, and skip the chopsticks, instead enjoying your meal using your spatula, straight from the piping-hot teppan.

Credits: Story

Cooperation with:
Murakami Okonomiyaki
Shimatani Foods Co., Ltd.

Photos: Yusuke Abe (YARD)
Text: Masaya Yamawaka
Edit: Saori Hayashida
Production: Skyrocket Corporation

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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