Lessons of Japan's Recession Food


Photo by David Nakamura

It would be hard to find a chef who is a better match for the food he prepares than Yoshikuni Katayama.

Katayama works the countertop hot plate at Hassho, generally considered the best of Hiroshima's estimated 860 okonomiyaki restaurants. Okonomiyaki, a thin flour pancake mixed with cabbage, bean sprouts, corn, eggs, soba or udon noodles, tempura bits, fish flakes, powdered seaweed, and a choice of pork, shrimp or, other meats, is a Hiroshima specialty. And it makes sense that Katayama, 41, oversees a shop that makes about 200 of them every evening--an average of one every two minutes.

Ten years ago, Katayama was one of Japan's vaunted salary men, the army of white-collar workers who helped grow the nation's economy into the second-largest in the world. He worked at a company that manufactured and sold construction cranes. Then, in 1999, during Japan's "lost decade" of depressed economic performance, his company downsized, and he was laid off.

As the United States, Japan, and the rest of the world struggle to recover from the fallout of the credit crunch, my dinner offered a lesson in resilience.

Out of work at 31, Katayama changed careers. He walked into Hassho, which operates an apprentice school, and became an okonomiyaki chef. That decision had a certain poignancy because okonomiyaki is the mother of all recession food. The dish rose to prominence during Hiroshima's post-World War II recovery, sustaining residents of the flattened city at a time when rice was scarce and people were forced to rely on imported American flour. Okonomiyaki, which means "as you like it" because one can customize the ingredients, became a simple, inexpensive staple.

As the United States, Japan, and the rest of the world struggle to recover from the fallout of the credit crunch, my dinner at Hassho in the heart of Peace City last week offered a lesson in resilience. When I asked Katayama if it was difficult to get used to his new job a decade ago, he dismissed the question. "It was my choice," he said, as salary men in dress shirts and ties bellied up to the countertop, "so I couldn't have a bad feeling about it." He was wearing an apron that read: "A Happy Happy Home! Let's Eat Okonomiyaki All Together!"

Dining with me was Takeshi Enami, a 65-year-old retired banker whom I met through a mutual friend. After 40 years at the bank, Enami is now an advisor to a chain of "hyaku yen" stores (equivalent to dollar stores in the States). Enami had never eaten at Hassho because, he said, the wait in line after work can be up to one hour. The restaurant is located in Yagenbori, an after-hours district, sandwiched among strip clubs and Pachinko slot machine parlors. Though Hassho closes at 10:30 p.m., many competitors stay open well past midnight to serve the drunken salary men who have missed the subway home.

Okonomiyaki doesn't take long to make, but it's fun to watch as it's being prepared. Because the counter is one large hot plate, the creation happens right in front of you: a circle of batter is topped with cabbage, bean sprouts, corn, tempura bits and pork or other meats. At Hassho, the noodles are briefly boiled ahead of time and then placed on a separate area of the hotplate and seasoned with salt and pepper. (In Osaka, which also is famous for okonomiyaki, the dish is served without noodles.)

After several minutes, the chef places the pancake mixture atop the noodles, lifts all of it onto a pair of cracked eggs, and, with a flick of a metal spatula, flips the concoction over. The dish is topped with a brown sauce, seaweed, and, if desired, a Japanese mayonnaise. Okonomiyaki remains on the hot plate during dinner, and one can either scoop it onto a separate plate or eat it directly from a smaller spatula, which can be awkward for a beginner.

As we ate and drank beer, Enami recalled that as a boy he would bring an egg to his neighbors' houses when they invited him for okonomiyaki because eggs were so expensive back then. In a hallway that led to the back of the restaurant, dozens of eggs were piled into a plastic bin awaiting their turn on the grill, a reminder that our current recession, bad as it may be, isn't what it once was.

Hassho is located at 10-6 Yagenbori, Naka-ku, Hiroshima, Japan. Phone: 082-248-1776. Hours: 4 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.