The Otafuku tour begins the okonomiyaki story a few years later, after the dust had settled, after the desperation had ebbed. On the main floor of the museum, the first stop is a reconstructed okonomiyaki ya-san from the 1950s. Like many of the early wave of okonomiyaki shops, it was connected to a home, perhaps with a small convenience store for daytime commerce, selling gum and cigarettes. More than anything, the ad hoc diners were a way for war widows to earn some money. The reconstructed space has the plastic feel of demonstration food, punctuated by a few original accents: metal hera (spatulas) from the period, a small black-and-white television with old newsreels, a menu board offering okonomiyaki with egg for 15 yen and without for 10.
As Japan recovered from the postwar depression, okonomiyaki became the cornerstone of Hiroshima’s nascent restaurant culture. And with new variable—noodles, protein, fishy powders—added to the equation, it became an increasingly fungible concept. Half a century later, it still defies easy description. Okonomi means “whatever you like,” yaki means “grill,” but smashed together they do little to paint a clear picture. Invariably, writers, cooks, and oko officials revert to analogies: some call it a cabbage crepe, others a savory pancake or an omelet. Guidebooks, unhelpfully, refer to it as Japanese pizza, though okonomiyaki looks and tastes nothing like pizza. Otafuku, for its part, does little to clarify the situation, comparing okonomiyaki in turn to Turkish pide, Indian chapatti, and Mexican tacos.
There are two overarching categories of okonomiyaki: Hiroshima style, with a layer of noodles and a heavy cabbage presence, and Osaka or Kansai style, made with a base of eggs, flour, dashi, and gratednagaimo, sticky mountain yam. More than the ingredients themselves, the difference lies in the structure: whereas okonomiyaki in Hiroshima is carefully layered, a savory circle with five or six distinct layers, the ingredients in Osaka-style okonomiyaki are mixed together before cooking. The latter is so simple to cook that many restaurants let you do it yourself on tableside teppans. Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki, on the other hand, is complicated enough that even the cooks who dedicate their lives to its construction still don’t get it right most of the time. (Some people consider monjayaki, a runny mass of meat and vegetables popularized in Tokyo’s Tsukishima district, to be part of the okonomiyaki family, but if so, it’s no more than a distant cousin.)
Otafuku entered the picture in 1938 as a rice vinegar manufacturer. Their original factory near Yokogawa Station burned down in the nuclear attack, but in 1946 they started making vinegar again. In 1950 Otafuku began production of Worcestershire sauce, but local cooks complained that it was too spicy and too thin, that it didn’t cling to okonomiyaki, which was becoming the nutritional staple of Hiroshima life. So Otafuku used fruit—originally orange and peach, later Middle Eastern dates—to thicken and sweeten the sauce, and added the now-iconic Otafuku label with the six virtues that the chubby-cheeked lady of Otafuku, a traditional character from Japanese folklore, is supposed to represent. including a little nose for modesty, big ears for good listening, and a large forehead for wisdom.
Today Otafuku is the primary engine behind Hiroshima’s massive okonomiyaki industry, and as such, they invest no small amount of time and energy in making sure the city is checkered with successful vendors dispensing dark rivers of its saccharine sauce. That means connecting business owners with cabbage and pork purveyors to keep the teppans humming. That means schooling potential entrepreneurs in the economics of restaurant management. That means helping train the next wave of okonomiyaki masters: disgruntled salarymen, ambitious home cooks, even the occasional Guatemalan immigrant.
Lopez and his wife were determined to bring the flavors of Phoenix and Santa Fe and El Paso to the people of Hiroshima. The only problem was that no one in Japan had ever heard of Southwestern food.
After presenting his plan to a local builder, the contractor told Lopez bluntly, “I don’t build restaurants that fail.”
Lopez and his wife shuffled through ideas—pizzeria, bistro, sandwich shop—but nothing felt right. Eventually the conversation turned where conversations in Hiroshima normally turn when the subject of food comes up: okonomiyaki. “Why don’t you open an okonomiyaki restaurant?” friends and family started to ask.
Why not open an okonomiyaki shop? Let’s consider the reasons: Because Lopez was born seven thousand miles away, in one of the roughest cities on the planet. Because he didn’t look Japanese, speak Japanese, or cook Japanese. Because okonomiyaki isn’t just a pile of cabbage and noodles and pork belly, but a hallowed food in Hiroshima, stacked with layers and layers of history and culture that he couldn’t pretend to be a part of. Because even though they might accept an Italian cooking pasta and a Frenchman baking baguettes, they would never accept a Guatemalan making okonomiyaki.
But friends and family insisted it was a good idea—“Everybody knows and loves okonomiyaki,” they would say, still confounded by the idea of fajitas—and Lopez, with few decent alternatives, agreed to attend a business workshop put on by Otafuku. By the time he emerged three days later, head full of inventory lists and teppan technology, he was convinced enough to give it a run.
Otafuku provided the framework for running a business, but he still needed to learn how to cook okonomiyaki, so he sought out an apprenticeship. Lopez knew a guy who knew a guy working at Hassho, one of Hiroshima’s greatest okonomiyaki restaurants, where every night a line filled with hungry locals and guidebook-clutching tourists snakes around the block of Hiroshima’s neon Yagenbori entertainment district. He was in.
The master-apprentice relationship, in many ways, is still the beating heart of Japanese food culture, an age-old tradition that supersedes stages and cooking school as the primary engine of culinary education. Unsurprisingly, apprenticeships tend to be formal endeavors, and each style of cooking comes with its own set of rules and expectations. Serious tempura students can expect to spend five years filtering oil, stirring batter, and looking over their master’s shoulder before they’re deemed ready to fry. In the sushi world, the apprentice might begin with a year of washing dishes, another few years cleaning and cooking rice, and eventually dedicate a decade to quietly observing the master slice and serve fish before being released into the wild to test his skills. I once met a fifty-five-year-old man in a Matsumoto karaagerestaurant who had been apprenticing under his father for twenty-seven years. After three decades, his dad still didn’t let son fry the chicken.
By these standards, the okonomiyaki apprenticeship is relatively relaxed. Lopez spent just three months working at Hassho, learning quickly the dozens of steps that go into constructing Hiroshima’s most sacred staple. “I had an advantage that most of these guys don’t have: I was a professional cook. I picked it up pretty fast.”
In ninety days, Hassho’s owner Ogawa Hiroki passed along to Lopez an arsenal of tiny tricks and vital techniques it had taken a lifetime to accumulate. He learned that bean sprouts in May behave differently than bean sprouts in October. He learned that fresh noodles, cooked to order, make an okonomiyaki superior to one made with the prepackaged, pre-cooked soba everyone else uses. He learned that touch and finesse are the most vital items in an okonomiyaki cook’s toolkit, because every okonomiyaki behaves differently.
When Lopez had metabolized the meaty lessons of okonomiyaki, Hiroki didn’t just pat him on the back and wish him good luck. He took an early and spirited role in assuring that Lopez would succeed on his own. He helped design the layout of the restaurant; he made sure the teppan was three centimeters thick and had overlapping burners to better hold in the heat, just as he had designed it himself so many years ago; he connected Lopez with all the right purveyors, including the guy with the gorgeous eggs with double yolks that his regulars so adored.
When a new okonomiyaki restaurant opens in Hiroshima, an elaborate flower arrangement adorns the front of the shop, a gift from the master to the apprentice as the latter tries to win over a new clientele. It’s both a sign of respect and an easy way to establish the bona fides of the new business owner. (It’s also a subtle but looming reminder to the apprentice that he better keep his shit together and not bring dishonor to the master.) When Okonomiyaki Lopez opened in the spring of 2000, Hiroki sent an elaborate $200 arrangement, a sign with his shop’s logo, and a metal stand to hold it all out in front for the public to see.
A lot of Japanese people think Guatemala is a coffee brand
But business was slow. To start with, okonomiyaki joints are everywhere in this city, two thousand in total across greater Hiroshima, and it’s not easy to set yourself apart from the competition. It doesn’t help that Lopez Okonomiyaki is located on a quiet street in Yokogawacho, the working-class neighborhood where Makiko’s family once owned its ryokan. This is the kind of area where small neighborhood restaurants rule, and Lopez didn’t fit the profile of your Tuesday-night cook. “People would sit there and watch me with huge eyes, trying to figure out who this guy was making their okonomiyaki.”
Less than 2 percent of Japan’s 126 million citizens are immigrants, making it one of the most homogenous countries on the planet (a 2012 study in the Journal of Economic Literature placed it third to last in terms of ethnic diversity, with only North and South Korea ranking lower).
Chinese and Koreans, many whom have lived here for generations, account for more than half of whatever diversity there is, meaning very few Westerners call Japan home. Part of this stems from Japan’s historic aversion to non-Japanese—from the sealed borders of the Tokugawa shogunate to the forced assimilation of the Ainu in Hokkaido. Modern immigration laws, among the most draconian in the world, and a deep dedication to a belief in Japanese superiority on the part of today’s most conservative leaders, have done little to make Japan a more inclusive society.
The Japanese are heroically hospitable when it comes to foreign visitors, but for immigrants the welcome mat can be harder to find. Even if you do make it here, adapt to the culture, commit a thousand kanji characters to memory, denounce your birth country, and feel deep down in your soul that you are as Japanese as pickled fish and electronic toilets, you will always be an outsider.
Being from Guatemala, which at last count had just 145 citizens calling Japan home, means you’re more outside than most. “A lot of people think Guatemala is a coffee brand. ‘Oh, you’re from the coffee brand!’ ”says Lopez. “Japanese people forget about Central America. They think Mexico is attached to South America.”
Knowing they were up against a formidable headwind, Lopez and Makiko worked hard to make inroads in the neighborhood. So did Hiroki, who created special cards announcing Okonomiyaki Lopez that he distributed around Yokogawacho. He instructed Lopez—who was studying Japanese in night school and by now beginning to grasp some of the many social formalities that dominate basic interactions in Japan—to follow up with free samples of his okonomiyaki, and to solicit feedback from potential customers.
“Many said I could do better,” says Lopez. “I mean, if you ask them their opinion, they’re going to tell you.”
In those early days, Lopez and Makiko cooked side by side. She was pregnant with their first child, but she had trained in kitchens before and proved a talented okonomiyaki cook. Plus, since she was born and raised in the neighborhood, her mere presence behind the counter gave Lopez a sparkle of authenticity.
The combination of the oko offensive and the husband-and-wife dynamics worked to slowly win over the neighborhood. The biggest breakthrough, though, came from the most unlikely source of all: Guatemala. A customer from the neighborhood came in one afternoon while Lopez was making salsa for a staff meal. He saw a pile of chopped jalapeños and asked Lopez to throw a few in with his okonomiyaki. Lopez tried to dissuade the man, told him that jalapeños are spicy and wouldn’t match well with the okonomiyaki, but the customer insisted. He loved it, and came back every day for weeks, ordering the same thing, until finally another customer saw the off-menu alteration and came along for the ride. Soon the spicy supplement became a Lopez staple, and he was forced to add it to the regular menu.
Today, the jalapeño okonomiyaki remains the most popular item at Lopez Okonomiyaki, much to the owner’s chagrin.
“Jalapeños don’t belong in okonomiyaki.”