If there’s one thing the Japanese know how to do—even though we know there are many—it’s perfect things. They find something they’re interested in and they practice it and study it until they master it. Okonomiyaki, a preeminent Japanese savoury pancake, is no exception.
Gaining momentum during the war as rice became scarce, it was an opportunity for the people of Japan to be creative and resourceful with the ingredients they had. Literally translating to “whatever you want (okonomi) grilled (yaki),” as it’s name suggests, the dish brings together a mix of ingredients (usually with egg and flour) to be grilled, with the specificities around process and structure differing depending on the region.
On a recent trip to Melbourne (where he ran a pop-up restaurant), we caught up with Fumio Tanga, a Japanese okonomiyaki aficionado currently residing in London. Before finishing up his four-year Sho Foo Doh residency at the Pacific Social Club, we spoke to Fumio about the significance of okonomiyaki in Japan, what it was like to learn from the master at Henkutsuya in Hiroshima and his new project Broad Island Shokudo.
Fumio Tanga from Broad Island Shokudo. Photo by Beth Wilkinson for Lindsay.
You left Japan when you were eighteen to move to London. Why London?
As cheesy as it reads, in 1995, I saw Ride and Radiohead live in Fukuoka a few weeks in a row. I was at university studying something I didn’t want to be, so quitting uni and moving to the U.K. seemed a legit idea after those phenomenal gigs.
Did you cook a lot when you were living in Japan? Who taught you?
I learnt how to cook okonomiyaki from the master at Henkutsuya in Hiroshima, Japan, while I worked there in 1992. Apart from okonomiyaki, I didn’t know how to cook when I lived in Japan. I started cooking when I moved to the U.K. out of necessity—finding decent food in the U.K. was a real struggle back then. I had no professional kitchen experience before starting Sho Foo Doh.
“He [Mr Kawahara] told me some tricks and just let me make my own dinner every night so I got the hang of it. It doesn't take long to cook okonomiyaki, but you have to know how it should taste.”
What was it like learning from the master at Henkutsuya? What was he like?
Well, it’s a long time ago and it really wasn’t a “I’ll pass you on my secret, son” type of moment. He [Mr Kawahara] told me some tricks and just let me make my own dinner every night so I got the hang of it. It doesn’t take long to cook okonomiyaki, but you have to know how it should taste. The master was a sweet guy who didn’t say much, but his wife—also known as Mama-chan—was and still is the face of Henkutsuya. She’s this amazing, kind and vibrant woman. I think they knew my grandparents (Sho Foo Doh founders), as they were only a four-minute walk from their shop.
Did you seek out Japanese cuisine when you moved to London?
As I mentioned, it was very hard to find cheap and cheerful restaurants in the U.K. back then. Decent Japanese food costed so much that poor students like me couldn’t afford it. Then I started trying things out in the kitchen myself.
Fumio Tanga making Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki. Photo by Beth Wilkinson for Lindsay.
Fumio Tanga making Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki. Photo by Beth Wilkinson for Lindsay.
“Basically Hiroshima-style is more substantial, yet lighter, and infinitely better than Osaka-style. I'm absolutely not biased.”
You didn’t originally think of working in the hospitality industry, did you? What prompted you to start making okonomiyaki?
Around 2010, I left my job and was applying for dead-end jobs with no success. I heard that a new weekly street market was going to start in my neighbourhood, so I applied to have an okonomiyaki stall and was accepted. It went well and okonomiyaki has been feeding me ever since.
Can you explain the difference between the various styles of okonomiyaki in Japan?
There are a few different okonomiyaki styles in different regions in Japan. The most popular and well-known one worldwide is the Osaka-style, which is a more doughy pancake where all the ingredients are mixed into the batter. Hiroshima-style on the other hand is more layered, starting with a thin crepe, loads of vitamin K boosting cabbages, beanshoots, pork belly, egg noodles and an omelette, with sauce and scallions on top. Basically Hiroshima-style is more substantial, yet lighter, and infinitely better than Osaka-style. I’m absolutely not biased.
Watching you work, it seems like it’s a pretty fast-paced process. What’s it like to make?
When you saw me, that was the fastest and the most I’ve ever cooked in one day, due to the overwhelming demand in Melbourne! I usually take a bit more time and am a bit more relaxed.
The making of Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki. Photo by Beth Wilkinson for Lindsay.
“There are about 1,650 okonomiyaki restaurants in Hiroshima. It's everywhere. We call okonomiyaki our soul food. ”
What is okonomiyaki in Japan? Who eats it, how, when?
There are about 1,650 okonomiyaki restaurants in Hiroshima. It’s everywhere. We call okonomiyaki our soul food. We all grow up with it, and historically, it helped many widows start up small businesses from home after the war. We eat it for lunch, dinner and as late night booze-filled munchies. I don’t know what the average is, but my friends and I were eating them at least two to four meals a week—rotating our favourite restaurants, usually run by a grumpy middle-aged lady, and also discovering the new ones. Apparently in Osaka, people cook them at home as much as eating them out, but not so much in Hiroshima. We leave it to the pros because we are worth it.
What does it mean for you to be able to share your culture with people through food on a day-to-day basis?
At times I forget why I’m doing this. At times I’m just too tired to think of the cultural importance of the work I do, just humbly hoping for a nice letter one day from the mayor of Hiroshima.
Fumio Tanga’s Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki. Photo by Beth Wilkinson for Lindsay.
I think we share something in common—both naming our creative ventures after our grandfathers. Can you explain the name Sho Foo Doh?
My grandparents ran a shop called Sho Foo Doh in Hiroshima ’til the late 80s. They used to bake and sell Portuguese castella cakes and other traditional Japanese sweets. It just felt right to name my business after my family’s. Also I saved money on uniforms and a lantern that my mum kept since the original Sho Foo Doh’s closure.
What’s next on the agenda for Fumio Tanga?
After four fun-fuelled years, our operation at Pacific Social Club will come to an end in July. I’ll let Sho Foo Doh rest for a bit. Next is Broad Island Shokudo—a new project in Melbourne between me, Nick Murray (Animals Dancing) and Tom Moore (Animals Dancing/Skydiver Records). It launched in February with a pop-up okonomiyaki restaurant in Collingwood and we have some exciting plans for later this year, so watch this space.
In Issue No. 1 we meet Australian fashion icon Jenny Kee, translator from Italian Ann Goldstein and French-Cuban music duo Ibeyi. We learn about Ramadan, the Aboriginal ball game Marngrook, the Kiribati dance, the art of pickling, and the importance of home. And we see what it’s like to dress up in Myanmar, live in Cuernavaca, make ceramics from different soil, and walk the streets of Florence.
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