Here’s a story that’s bound to ruffle a few feathers down south. According to those in the know, okonomiyaki – a savoury “pancake” dish loved by millions and one of Osaka’s most acclaimed culinary delights – may in fact have been created in none other than Tokyo.
When it comes to delicious food, Osaka is definitely in no short supply. Wander down pretty much any street in the city’s shopping arcades and entertainment districts and your nostrils will be almost constantly overwhelmed by tempting aromas. Whether it’s takoyaki octopus dumplings, fried noodles in a sweet and sticky sauce or “pressed” sushi, you’re sure so find something to satisfy your cravings and clean out your wallet.
▼Takoyaki- a firm favourite in any part of Japan
According to some, however, there is strong evidence that okonomiyaki – which has long been touted as an Osaka original – may in fact originate from Tokyo. “How could this be possible!?” many proud Osakians may cry on hearing this shocking news. In order to answer that, we need to take a short stroll down the vista of history.
- Tea-time snacks
Long before okonomiyaki existed, there was funoyaki, which literally means “cooked wheat bread”. Funoyaki is believed to have been invented by Sen Rikyu, a historical figure who is credited as having heavily influenced Japanese tea ceremonies during his lifetime.
A simple mixture of wheat flour and water, funoyaki consists of a dough made from a mixture of wheat flour and water. After being formed, the dough is rolled thin before being very lightly toasted. This was then topped with poppy seeds, miso paste and sugar before being rolled up and eaten as a traditional Japanese sweet, or wagashi. Since funoyaki’s creator was a resident of Osaka and the dish is often believed to have paved the way to modern-day okonomiyaki, proud Osakians are apt to claim ownership of both dishes. But since funoyaki was always eaten as a sweet and looks almost entirely different to flat, savoury okonomiyaki, it would be quite a stretch to suggest that the story ends here.
- Enter the dondon
During the Meiji period (1886-1912), a dish bearing a much closer resemblance to modern-day okonomiyaki appeared. Known as dondonyaki, the food arrived shortly after the birth of monjayaki (a pan-fried batter often mixed with noodles, fish, meat and vegetables, which was invented in the Kanto region- the location of Tokyo) and became a big hit with locals. However, unlike monjayaki – which is very thin and is eaten piece by piece using tiny spatulas – dondonyaki was made with much larger amount of flour, resulting in a thicker, drier food that could be more easily transported and did not need to be eaten directly from the hot plate.
▼ A typical monjayaki dining experience
No matter how alike dondonyaki and okonomiyaki may seem, however, we ought to note that the word “okonomiyaki” itself did not exist during the time in which dondonyaki was popular, and there is little evidence that the essential ingredients included in the dish were the same as those used in okonomiyaki.
- Alternative theory # 1: Okonomiyaki comes from Ginza
According to Mana Kumagai’s literary work “Takoyaki”, okonomiyaki as we know it today may have first been cooked in a small back alley shop in Tokyo’s Ginza district at the beginning of the Showa Period (1926–1989). Kumagai notes that at this time, the dish was kept a closely guarded secret and was only enjoyed by a select few. Everyday Tokyoites were rarely if ever given the opportunity to sample the peculiar dish.
- Alternative theory # 2: Literary sightings
A restaurant that is believed to have served okonomiyaki was used as the model for a restaurant in Jun Takami’s novel “Ikanaru no Hoshi ni”. Opened in 1937 in Tokyo’s Asakusa district, “Okonomiyaki shop” Asakusa Sometaro was known for serving a variety of foods including yaki soba fried noodles and ebi ten battered shrimp on rice- which traditionally go alongside okonomiyaki. Whether the actual okonomiyaki that was served was exactly the same as the stuff we gorge on today is not clear, but evidence suggests that there was, at the very least, a restaurant serving foods of this kind and going by the same name, perhaps for the first time in public.
- Alternative theory # 3: Tokyo was “first”
While there are clearly some pieces of evidence missing from the “Asakusa Sometaro” theory, it is worth nothing that there are no records of similar restaurants existing in Osaka before it. In fact, according to historical records, it was not until the arrival of now successful chain Botejyu in 1946 – some nine years later than the shop Jun Takami based his literary creation on – that Osaka had a registered okonomiyaki restaurant of its own.
Of course, none of these theories is entirely water-tight, and we’re positive that there are okonomiyaki fans beavering away in Osaka at this very moment, picking the theories apart and sourcing counter evidence, but it’s interesting to know that this may not be as clear-cut a case as has been thought for generations. While we’d never dream of stripping Osaka of its badge of “the home of okonomiyaki” (the sheer amount of the stuff that’s eaten there alone earns the city the title!), however, we have to say that we’re leaning every so slightly towards the theory that we have Tokyo to thank for one of Japan’s – and Osaka’s – finest foods.
We’re very much looking forward to seeing the typically powerful and dramatic responses from the people of Osaka!
Takoyaki image via Mamaloli