Hiroshima is known for a few things in the food world, namely Hiroshima style okonomiyaki, oysters, and perhaps momijimanju. I think most Americans think of Kumamoto (Kyushu) for oysters, but in Japan, Hiroshima seems to have a bigger name. Unlike the Kansai style of okonomiyaki, which is the version you see everywhere else in Japan, and as far as I can tell, the rest of the world, Hiroshima okonomiyaki is one of those things that doesn't seem to slip out of its native region very well. Kind of like the Japanese version of the Philly Cheesesteak. For a combination of fairly simple ingredients, it just doesn't taste right anywhere else. Of course it takes a lot of great care and work to perfect these things.
Most of us know the okonomiyaki as a batter filled with a number of ingredients like cabbage, shrimp, pork, ten kasu, ginger, and then fried into a big pancake and then topped with katsuobushi and nori and sauced. This is the classic Kansai version. The Hiroshima version of okonomiyaki is a deconstructed version of the Kansai style, with the addition of panfried noodles. First, instead of a thick batter, the Hiroshima style begins with a very thin crepe made from the batter. On top of that is a mound of shredded cabbage. Then a handful of bean sprouts, and ten kasu (bits of fried tempura batter). Then a sprinkle of salt, pepper and/or other spices. Then pieces of pork (usually something fatty like belly). At this point, any other ingredient to kick up the orthodox version is placed on the mound, like shrimp, oysters, etc. The cook then flips the whole mound over to cook the pork pieces that were on top and let the vegetables cook/steam with the (now crispy) crepe covering the mound. The cook jostles the bottom of the mound a few times to move the pork and vegetables around to help it along as it cooks, and at the same time keeping its form as a tightly rounded mound. All of this is taking place on a big teppan flat grill the size of a standard door. The standard Hiroshima okonomiyaki will include fried noodles, unless you ask for yours without. You get a choice of soba or udon noodles (soba noodles in this case is just thin (egg?) noodles as you get with ramen or yakisoba, not the buckwheat noodle we tend to associate with the word soba. Soba is kind of a generic term for thin noodles.) At this stage, the cook takes a handful of noodles and puts it on the grill to fry with a little oil, and as it cooks along he/she forms the noodle mass into a circle the size of the okonomiyaki mound. The cook then removes the crepe from the top and places the circle of noodles, and places the crepe back on top. As the vegetables begin to wilt as it cooks, the okonomiyaki maker then brushes some okonomi sauce on the crepe, and begins to fry an egg on the teppan next to the mound. Some places break the yolk while others fry the egg with yolk intact. The egg is then placed on top of the crepe, and a little more sauce is drizzled or brushed on top, and there, the katsuo bushi, nori and other flaky material is sprinkled over the top. If you order yours with scallions, which is an extra ingredient you'll need to specify, you get another mound (probably a whole cupful) or sliced scallions on top of that. Next is eating it.
If you sit at the counter of the teppan, which you really need to do to enjoy the full okonomiyaki experience, all you get for your eating utensil is a small spatula. Chopsticks are also available, but not necessary. There's about a 6-inch space between you and the teppan for drinks your oshibori towel, and a container of extra okonomi sauce to apply as you wish. The okonomiyaki is gently pushed in front of you on the heated teppan and you use your spatula to slice bite-size pieces which you eat with the spatula. No room for daintiness here. Just dig in.
The first place I visited was the famous Mitchan. You can find Mitchan by the line that is usually formed outside. When we arrived there in the middle of the afternoon, the line seemed short enough with 5 people in front of us. A waiter will come to greet you in line first asking how many in your party, and if you mind sitting at a table rather than along the teppan, and hands over a menu. Since there are only about 10 items on the menu, the choice should be pretty quick. We went for the deluxe okonomiyaki which includes squid, shrimp, squid tempura, noodles, pork, and egg. I was tempted to get the one with mochi and dried squid, but it seemed a little too filling. We got a table instead of seats at the teppan, which diminished the experience somewhat, but I was very pleased with the okonomiyaki. This was my first Hiroshima okonomiyaki.
Not having a basis to compare my okonomiyaki, we decided to walk the block to the okonomi-mura (okonomiyaki village)-- 3 stories of okonomiyaki counters. It's kind of a strange idea, but it's kind of like a food court with all the shops selling the same thing, or slightly different versions of the same thing. Unless you know of a place by reputation, it's kind of difficult to figure out which are the better counters, besides from the lines. We just decided to take two open seats (which were a little difficult to find). As opposed to the Mitchan experience of waiting at a table, the teppan experience is key to enjoying okonomiyaki. Besides being able to watch the cooks prepare your okonomiyaki with great skill and precision, I think that okonomiyaki is one of those foods meant to be eaten in a communal setting. Although its history is someone recent, it's akin to a peasant food, and as such, everyone's an equal when consuming it. So, getting back to the food, this okonomi-mura stand gave me a better understanding of what it means to eat okonomiyaki in Hiroshima, and what a vital part it plays in the food culture of the city. It also gave me a better perspective to judge it, and while I had a more intimate experience with my okonomiyaki at the counter, the one at Mitchan was superior. My Hiroshima native host complained that the crepes weren't thin enough at the counter, and the noodles weren't as good. While the sauce at the counter were commercial products, I believe the ones at Mitchan are their own formula. Everything else is pretty much equal (fresh ingredients) and it's about figuring out your own preference for fillings.
Armed with my new knowledge about okonomiyaki, we went to a final place called Yamasaya, a little ways north of the downtown area, right under the Takatori station on the Astram monorail line. We met up with friends who were coming from Okayama, a mere 1½ hours away (40 minutes on the bullet train), yet they were novices when it came to Hiroshima style okonomiyaki, mainly because this style of okonomiyaki hasn't even penetrated the next prefecture. We got into Yamasaya just in time as we took the remaining seats at the counter. All other customers who came in after us were told it will be over a half-hour wait. The cook at Yamasaya was fairly young, but from his motions, it was obvious that he was an okonomiyaki veteran. One person from our group recognized him from an appearance on television a little while back and congratulated him on his 15 minutes of fame. If Mitchan's version was a little over the top, and the Okonomi-mura version was average, the one at Yamasaya was in that range between the two. The crepe and noodles got a thumbs up this time.
-Naka-ku, Hatchobori 6-7 (original store) 082-221-5438
-Naka-ku, Shintenchi 6-12 (branch) 082-243-5935
Asaminami-ku, Takatori-Kita 1-4-30, 082-872-1121
Under the Takatori station on the Astram line (monorail)
Naka-ku, Shintenchi 5-13 (Floors 2-4)
Here are a few websites where you can get a visual on the okonomiyaki or some further information.
(in Japanese) http://www.okonomimura.jp/