Tazuko-san’s okonomiyaki in Senda-cho
Toraya is a noted confectioner based in the city of Fukuyama. Since its founding in the Edo Period around 400 years ago, recently the store has received attention for its unusual new products. Items such as “cream puffs that look like tako-yaki (octopus balls)”, “jelly that resembles a Chinese spicy tofu dish called, mapo dofu” and “a mont blanc (chestnut cream sweet) resembling cold soba noodles” are some of the sweets sold here. Hearing rumors about her skills in cooking, I paid a visit to the elderly woman at Toraya.
It takes about 10 minutes by car heading northeast of Fukuyama station to reach her stately home in a quaint neighborhood in the district of Senda-chō of Fukuyama city. Unlike like your usual “grandma”, she appeared with a smile wearing her usual colorful patterned apron. A fragrant aroma wafts upon opening the door. In front of our eyes, was a clay pot of oden (Japanese style stew) simmering within the rich broth where she immediately said, “Eat up, I made some oden.”
Shingo-san, the 16th head of Toraya and also the son of Tazuko-san commented, “This oden is seriously yummy!” Since he was praising his mother’s cooking right there, I had to take up her offer. The slow-cooked beef tendons melted in my mouth, and the radish was infused to the core with the broth. When we praised the softness of the beef tendons, with a face of discernment, she responded,” I only buy my fish and meat at stores that sell them specifically, not just any old grocery store.”
Savoring the rich flavors of the oden made me yearn for some rice. As if she already knew what I wanted, Tazuko-san then served freshly made rice balls using rice from a fresh crop. Feeling sated, I soon felt I should simply leave and come back at another time to do the interview. That was when I heard a neighbor’s voice coming from the entrance. Tazuko-san responded as she made another rice ball for her neighbor that just came in. Her behavior of feeding anyone who dropped was already instinctual. Apparently her neighbors and even door-to-door salesmen all come in for a bite before they go.
Oh, now let me introduce this amazing grandma, even though I have taken part of the food she served earlier. Without further adieu, here is Tazuko Takada, 81 years old.
Tazuko-san then made me her okonomiyaki. “When I was a student, I moved from Shōbara City to Hiroshima City and rented a room where there wasn’t a gas line. Near the place where I lived was a place that served okonomiyaki and that was the first time I was exposed to the world of okonomiyaki. I frequented the place enough to learn how to make them.”
A cup of flour and water is mixed with a dash of powdered bonito stock and salt for the batter. The batter is then spread thin onto a heated griddle. Tororo konbu (thinly shaved kelp, ika ten (squid fish cake), bits of fried tempura batter, and generous amounts of shredded cabbage and bean sprouts are then placed on the crepe-like batter.
Batter is then poured on top of the ingredients to hold it all together. Add fish cake and pork above and then the okonomiyaki is swiftly flipped. It takes amazing skill to flip an okonomiyaki.
“This recipe is invaluable when you don’t have anything in the kitchen. Almost ready!” Cracking one egg on the corner of the griddle, she spreads the egg as she stirs the yolk and places the okonomiyaki on top and flips it again. Spread some special sauce and sprinkle aonori (dried green seaweed) and bonito flakes, then it is done.
The okonomiyaki is built around vegetables and thus good for health. I have never eaten okonomiyaki with tororo konbu, but the rich flavor and just the right amount of saltiness incites the appetite. One can only shout words of delight while eating her okonomiyaki.
“In the past, we did not use so many ingredients, just two or three slices of fish cake, some tororo konbu, cabbage and bean sprouts. It used to cost 10 yen but it was very delicious” Tazuko-san commented. “My mother was good at cooking. She would rush to buy the freshest ingredients of the season. When she was 40 she ran a small restaurant and during the postwar years she would make rice balls for the needy.” For Tazuko-san, it might be natural for her to naturally offer food to people, especially seeing how her mother worked.
Behind the house is a spacious terrace. The space is serene, refreshing and tranquil compared to the city. Bitter persimmon peels were being dried, and when I asked Tazuko-san about them, I was told that the peels are used in pickling vegetables and would enhance the sweetness of the pickles. I wanted to ask Tazuko-san about her time when she married and started her life at the shop. “My parents told me if the marriage does not work out that I could come home anytime. In reality, there were moments when I felt like I wanted to,” she laughed. Her husband loved to go out and during winter would be gone from home to ski in the mountains. While Tazuko-san’s husband was gone, she would watch over the home and business.
However, when Tazuko-san turned 54, her husband suddenly passed away and she immediately took over the management of the family business. Though Tazuko-san noted how worried she was then, she managed the family business and was active in promoting the rights of the women for her community and her business. Later, her son Shingo-san produced a series of sweets resembling savory foods that proved to be a big hit.
Shingo-san is no slouch in the kitchen either, but he still loves his mother’s cooking. I realized that being able to make a common dish even more delicious is amazing. From family members to friends, to neighbors and first time visitors, as well as those who have money and those who don’t, if anyone can satisfy someone’s heart and stomach, then that is a true skill. Tazuko-san seems very happy to be surrounded by people who enjoy her food with a smile.
A culinary researcher based in Bangkok. Founder of 40creations. During college, she realized that good food could create smiles, regardless of country borders or age. In 2012, she start the project YOU BOX to share “ridiculously delicious” experiences with the world, and hunting “Grandma’s recipes” at the same time. Published a book in Japanese based on the interviews she's done for 100 people in 15 countries for ３ years. In 2018, she found TASTE HUNTERS with domestic partners in Thai.
Translation: Luke Baker