There’s a very silly show on Netflix called “Is it Cake?” in which the host, Mikey Day from Saturday Night Live, asks cake artists to create replicas of ordinary objects like handbags, sewing machines, and bowling balls. The judges then have to determine which objects are just objects, and which ones are actually cake. The big moment comes when Mikey grabs a large kitchen knife and attempts to cut into the item. Will the knife go through (hence cake) or hit something hard (hence real object)? I kind of like the show because it asks the audience, “What is reality?” and “Can you hold two ideas in your head at the same time?”
Those are the same kinds of questions I ask every time I eat okonomiyaki. Is it a pizza? Is it a pancake? Is it a crepe? It’s definitely not cake. (Or is it?) One of my favorite places to eat this mystery food is Okonomi-mura in Hiroshima, Japan. Essentially, this is a food court for just one food item. As you reach the top of the stairs, you’re greeted by about 15 different micro okonomiyaki restaurants, each featuring a large grill and small red stools all around. You then follow your instinct regarding which restaurant to choose. Does the chef look friendly? Is the place crowded? (Could be a good thing or a bad thing.) Can they customize according to your food requirements? (I’m always looking for vegan.) My friend Adam and I finally select an appealing stall in the back and make our orders: pork okonomiyaki for Adam, veggie for me.
So what is okonomiyaki? Like I said before, it’s a little of this, a little of that. With a base of wheat flour batter, the concoction is cooked on a teppan grill and usually includes cabbage, your choice of protein, savory bbq sauce, aonori, katsuobushi, Japanese mayonnaise and pickled ginger. The local specialty also includes noodles, something you can only find in Hiroshima. Many okonomiyaki joints give you the batter and let you cook up your meal yourselves at a private grill. Here at Okonomi-mura, however, the custom is for the chefs to cook your meal to order. Once it arrives, you cut it into squares and tuck in. What a strange and wonderful food. It’s doughy. It’s barbeque-y. It’s got a bit of seaweed on top. And sure, why not top it with ginger. This is not your stereotypical Japanese food, a la sushi and tempura. It’s more like Japanese comfort food for the whole family. And most of all, it’s fun! Hiroshima strikes me as its own okonomiyaki in microcosm – two things at once. On the one hand, you can never forget what happened here during WW2. This is a city that literally rose from the ashes, like a phoenix. On the other hand, simultaneously, it’s a vibrant, modern city with lively family food experiences like this.
Is it cake? It’s much more than that, like everything in life.
(We live in a world that skews towards binary. Politicians are always trying to nail their opponents on their flip flopping. “I’m asking you Senator, do you support this bill or not? Yes or no?” What’s missed by this approach is the concept of nuance. The world is complex. Rather than answering with a simple yay or nay, sometimes we need to initiate a conversation about the intricacies of the topic. Very often, “either/or” doesn’t apply. As hard as it may seem, we often need to be able to hold multiple ideas in our heads at the same time: like, is it a pancake or a crepe? Is this person something other than male/female? Is this party a competitor, an ally or both? Before you write off someone in your life as good or bad, consider looking at them as a multitude of characters, a multiverse of worlds! No one needs to be just a cake.)