On Chopsticks, Pancake Rivalries and the Acceptable Face of Tofu

Alright, I’ve had a couple of drinks out and I’ve just cracked open another so this one might be a tad less focused. Let’s talk about food!

So I’ve now been in Japan for seven weeks, and have dined out nigh-on constantly, a product of my laziness and the single-hob adornment of my sad kitchen. My meat-free principles also didn’t last long in the face of Hiroshima cuisine- vegetarian dining options are too often served with a miasma of indifference, although there are honourable exceptions. The upshot of which is that I’ve tried a gluttonous gamut of the island nation’s delicacies. Tempura, udon bowls, ramen, sushi, braised eel, deep-fried kushikatsu skewers, seaweed soups and salads, and my absolute favourite- okonomiyaki. So, let’s start there.

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It turns out there are two different types of okonomiyaki. The Kansai style popular in Osaka blends ingredients including eggs, cabbage and onions into a rich, battery pancake-omelette hybrid, searing at high temperatures before adding toppings such as bacon and mayonnaise. The Hiroshima style produces thinner pancakes, and separately adds cabbage, bacon or other ingredients in layers, before finishing with a final layer of soba noodles. The respective recipes are the source of a friendly culinary rivalry between the two cities, and people sometimes ask me which I prefer. Both have their merits, but if pushed, I’m Team Osaka all the way.

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Udon bowls are always a favourite, especially because they’re cheap and filling. They consist of thick noodles in a thin soup, with a range of extras like pork, eggs and kitsune- fried, flavourful, marinated tofu, which is genuinely delicious and should shatter any remaining preconceptions about the Little Soy-Based Meat Substitute That Couldn’t™. A nearby restaurant serves udon bowls with side dishes of tempura, which I always thought of as a specific dish involving prawns, but is basically just anything when battered and fried in a certain way. You could batter and fry your own left nipple and call it tempura if you so pleased. I wouldn’t recommend it, but it’s a free country.

Kushikatsu are likewise on the deep-fried anything spectrum. These are meat or vegetable (lotus root, for example, which is tough and slightly sweet) skewers, dipped in batter and panko. The restaurant below, meanwhile, offered sesame chili noodles with a range of heat factors from 1-100- a pleasant surprise in a country that doesn’t care much for spicy food.

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The other staple of my wayward diet has been bowls of sticky rice topped with more or less anything, from chicken and kimchi to unagi (eel) cutlets, and seasoned with soy sauce. Unagi is good, fleshy and delicate, although it doesn’t strike me as remarkably different from any other fish. Elsewhere, by my work a restaurant offers a ‘build your own’ style meal from an assortment of small plates including slow-cooked pumpkin, mackerel and rich, oily aubergine.

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So how can I afford this perpetual indulgence? Well, eating out isn’t hugely expensive here, although my food bill this month has been a smidge on the extravagant side. What’s more, ‘fast food’, cheap and cheerful chain restaurants here are head and shoulders above their overseas rivals. That udon restaurant I mentioned earlier? Essentially a fast food chain. Likewise the many ‘rice bowl’ joints that manifest on every corner of the crowded cityscape. Even the konbini (convenience store) food is about eight cuts above Tesco Metro sandwiches, which inevitably taste like how I would explain depression to an alien with limited experience of human emotion.

I could go on, at length. I could talk about the subtle art of eating with chopsticks, at which I have improved significantly- but not quite enough to eat udon noodles without getting soup flecks on my shirt. Call it cultural chauvinism if you will, but I’m not really convinced that there’s any point in chopsticks, to be honest- give me a fork any day. I could contemplate the cross-continental appeal of Worcester sauce.

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I could expound on Japan’s surprisingly rigid ‘don’t eat and walk’ norm, which can be a pain when I’ve bought some quick konbini food and can’t find a bench anywhere! Generally, it seems Japanese people like to take time to sit and savour food, which is a cultural trait I admire, but also I really really want to eat these onigiri and there’s like twenty minutes till I need to work and how can you do this to me you monstrous city planners?

Likewise, another time, I will talk about Japanese sweets and drinks, which deserve a blog of their own. And I will write more about finding other cuisines in Hiroshima, and the city’s vegetarian dining.

And tonight? Tonight I had a vegetarian burrito and an IPA from Graffity’s, a Mexican restaurant in Fukuromachi, slap bang in the heart of Hiroshima. I’m only human.

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