Foodie hotspots: Hiroshima city, Miyajima, Saijo, Onomichi, Fukuyama, Akitsu.
Foodies Look Out For: Kaki-ryori oyster cuisine, Hiroshima-yaki, anago conger eel, 'Restaurant Crocodile', Hiroshima sake.
The Basics: A journalist friend once described Hiroshima city this way: "It reminds me of Osaka, industrious, blue collar, friendly, but on a much smaller scale without the 'edge' that Osaka has, and the driving need to save money at every opportunity. Every time I visit, I feel I could live here, no problem at all". That's not a bad evaluation.
Most visitors to the prefecture head to its main city, easily accessed on the Sanyo shinkansen bullet train, but Onomichi and Fukuyama have their own charms. In Hiroshima be aware that things are rather spread out. Food and drink wise, Hatchobori, Kamiya-cho, and Nagaregawa are the main areas of interest.
Foodies Go Hiroshima: Let's start with a little controversy. Once, many moons ago, I penned the following line: "Hiroshima-yaki must be the most over-rated dish in Japan's entire culinary output. How is one supposed to get excited about noodles and cabbage with an egg on top?" Over the years my opinions have mellowed somewhat, and I can do the occasional Hiroshimayaki with a cold beer as well as the next person. Yet I still find it hard to rave about. It seems, however, I am in the considerable minority. Hiroshima-yaki is a mega-hit, and, not least in the city where it was born, big business.
The place where most visitors to Hiroshima, and many residents (especially after the Hiroshima Carps have played a game), sample the city's take on okonomiyaki savory pancake (not 'Japanese pizza', please!) is in the four story complex known as Okonomimura. Their English language website gives us a nice history lesson.
"Okonomiyaki started out in the pre-war period as a dish called issen yoshoku (“Western food for a dime”) which was popular among the common people. Consisting of flour paste cooked with onions, dried shrimps, and condiment, it was seen as a kind of snack that could be eaten casually at confectionary shops and the like around town.
Only after the war did it develop into something that could be eaten as a meal. In the sprawling Shintenchi district and elsewhere around the city, cheap food stalls and okamisan eateries (run by women on their own, using part of a home) innovated by adding more solid ingredients such as cabbage, eggs, seafood, buckwheat noodles and wheat noodles to boost nutrition in those hard times".
Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki differs from the rest of the nation's in that it is layered rather than all mixed up, and there's an increased use of... cabbage. Don't laugh, this is considered highly important in such circles. Best is probably to head to Okonomiyakimura and see what takes your fancy. Atomu (4F) 'Culinary capability like the Mighty Atom!', seafood specialist Suigun (3F) and Shinchan (2F), with a 48- year history, are among the dizzying array of options.
Then again, if you want your Hiroshimayaki in the friendly environs of an individually run, local, place, head to Yagenbori Hassho, Rei-chan (in Hiroshima station building) or Nagataya, apparently approved by Air France.
Much more to this FGL editorial's taste are kaki oysters. They are on the small side here, but weighty and dense, dark and purplish, on sale from October to May, but best in January and February. 'Summer oysters' are available, but we trust them not. Miyajima is oyster central. We recommend Yakigaki no Hayashi, which claims to be the originator of grilled oysters there. They took the shellfish from humble hamayaki beachside grilled poor fisherman's food, into the realm of cuisine. Kaki Hyokko Shoten in Yagenbori in Hiroshima city has more ways to cook an oyster than you have ever imagined. They open until 7am!
The Hiroshima Budget Gourmet
Check out the wani teishoku - literally the 'Alligator Set-Lunch', available at Shusaibou Wani in Kokutaijimachi, Hiroshima city. Don't worry, it's not quite as bad as it sounds. The phrase 'wani' (alligator or crocodile, depending on your penchant) is the local dialect for shark. Thus it's shark cutlets. If you haven't tried it, and you are not morally opposed to it - sharks are endangered - the fish is actually very tasty.
It actually has a history. People living in the rural mountain areas of the prefecture were unable to get the protein provided by sea fish - except for shark meat. It wouldn't rot in the long voyage up into the hills. Even today, you can find shark sashimi in Hiroshima - wani sashimi - as a delicacy. Shobara and Miyoshi (try Muratake Souhonten) are the centers for local cuisine based on shark.
If you happen to be in Mihara City, a historic town located near the center of the prefecture, look out for another okonomiyaki at Teppan Tecchan, with chicken hearts, giblets, etc, the whole nine horumon yards. They have patented their own Tecchan sauce.
The Ramen Professor Recommends: Onomichi ramen, with its seabura pork back fat, shoyu soy sauce, and hirauchi-men flat noodles, took the nation by storm in the late 1990s. It was all started at Shuka-en, still the star in the Onomichi ramen firmament, by a Taiwanese chef in 1947. Today various establishments riff on the theme with niboshi sardine and torigara chicken blended broths. Some use tonkotsu pork broth too. Amongst the most popular are Miyachi and Ichibankan. Tsutafuji Honten - famed for their 'brusque' service - is another good option if you don't mind your Onomichi noodles rounded not flat. By the way, the phrase 'Onomichi ramen' was coined by tourists. Locals just call it chuka soba.
Chuka Soba Ajiyoshi in Higashi Hiroshima' Kurose-cho is a good old-school, no frills shoyu option.
FGL Favorite Tipple:
Hiroshima is a serious sake-making center. John Gauntner takes up the story. "Hiroshima water is soft, which dictates slow fermentation, which calls for lower temperatures to chemically facilitate tasty, desirable results. And that calls for more time, since the whole process moves more slowly. This is what Senzaburo Miura [great sake brewer] figured out: how to brew sake at lower temperatures over a longer period of time.
And this is how ginjo is brewed: at lower temperatures over a longer period of time. Hence, brewers in Hiroshima insist that, via the auspices of Senzaburo Miura, ginjo-shu brewing was developed in Hiroshima. But there are likely other theories..."
Don't miss the marvelous, sparkling junmai nigorizake Fukuchou no Hakubi from Akitsu-cho's Imada Shuzo. When we feel like spending some money, or even better if someone else is footing the bill, we partake of Kamoizumi Shuzo’s Kotobuki.
Matt Mangham, Hiroshima-based writer and friend of FGL adds: "Chugoku Jozo is a long-time sake and shochu maker in Togouchi, north of Hiroshima city proper. In recent years they've been buying freshly distilled whisky from overseas (unaged Scotch from Scotland, don't know which distillery right now, and unaged grain whisky from Canada) and aging it themselves in sherry and brandy casks in an unused railway tunnel deep in the mountains. I've read that the 18-year old blend has a small, dedicated following in Europe. That 18-year old, in fact, may only be available overseas, but I've seen a 12-year old expression here. Haven't tried it, have heard good things".
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