What is a unique Kansai special dish that is a go to dish for English teachers, visitors and office workers alike? What dish has the ability to create community, conversations and hands on cooking around the table?
Let me introduce you to Okonomiyaki, a dish which means whatever you like to grill and is a staple dish in the Kansai area. And to truly experience this dish, you need to go to a restaurant that has stood the test the time. A genuine eatery that has Japanese writing menus on the wall, old beer posters, a grandfather’s clock in one corner, and sumo or the latest Japanese soap opera playing on the other. What’s more, a hearty grandmother cracking bad jokes about your taste in women while cooking your dinner faster than you saying “fair go!”. In other words, a place that could appear in the Japanese equivalent of Cheers, a place so local you can't find on the internet, until now.
Okonomiyaki actually had very humble origins in the food shortages in the 1950's. It was invented to cook what was readily available at the time, like flour, cabbage and eggs. Kind of like bangers and mash, but also described as something like a Japanese pancake. The Kansai version mixed all these ingredients together, and nowadays this is celebrated in specialized restaurants. At this restaurant, you can have it with sliced pork, shredded cabbage, green onion, or octopus, squid, shrimp, mochi (pounded Japanese rice). You can even have it with pickled cabbage or cheese.
No Okonomiyaki is complete without the special Okonomiyaki sauce! This is a sweet and slightly tangy experience, a bit like Worchestershire sauce, but thicker and sweeter, itself with a fascinating history that has been curated through decades of constant innovation. You can either grill it yourself, and the waitstaff will kindly provide the bowl of raw ingredient that you can mix and grill at the hotplates at each table. Armed with a metal spatula, you cook it like a pancake, but only turning it only once to cook on both sides. Once it is cooked you can top it with the special sauce, seaweed flakes, bonito flakes that flicker like if it is alive, Japanese mayonnaise, and pickled ginger. The other way is for the waitstaff to cook it for you. Either way, it is very communal and somehow very engaging.
Why is it called Tsutsumi? Some say it may be connected to Yoshiaki Tsutsumi, who was the wealthiest person in the world for a short time in the 1980's, as the head of the Seibu Corporation. It was claimed that he owned one sixth of Japan. But you certainly don’t need to be that rich to eat okonomiyaki here, this is the food of the everyday people, and you can eat to your heart’s content for less than 1000 yen, part of the reason why it is popular with travellers and salarymen.