As Japan recovered from the post-war depression, okonomiyaki became the cornerstone of Hiroshima's nascent restaurant culture. And with new variables- noodles, protein, fishy powders- added to the equation, it became an increasingly fungible concept. Half a century later it still defies easy description. Okonomi means "whatever you like," yaki means "grill," but smashed together they do little to paint a clear picture. Invariably, writers, cooks, and oko officials revert to analogies: some call it a cabbage crepe; others a savory pancake or an omelet. Guidebooks, unhelpfully, refer to it as Japanese pizza, though okonomiyaki looks and tastes nothing like pizza. Otafuku, for its part, does little to clarify the situation, comparing okonomiyaki in turn to Turkish pide, Indian chapati, and Mexican tacos.
There are two overarching categories of okonomiyaki Hiroshima style, with a layer of noodles and a heavy cabbage presence, and Osaka or Kansai style, made with a base of eggs, flour, dashi, and grated nagaimo, sticky mountain yam. More than the ingredients themselves, the difference lies in the structure: whereas okonomiyaki in Hiroshima is carefully layered, a savory circle with five or six distinct layers, the ingredients in Osaka-style okonomiyaki are mixed together before cooking. The latter is so simple to cook that many restaurants let you do it yourself on table side teppans. Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki, on the other hand, is complicated enough that even the cooks who dedicate their lives to its construction still don't get it right most of the time. (Some people consider monjayaki, a runny mass of meat and vegetables popularized in Tokyo's Tsukishima district, to be part of the okonomiyaki family, but if so, it's no more than a distant cousin.)
Otafuku entered the picture in 1938 as a rice vinegar manufacturer. Their original factory near Yokogawa Station burned down in the nuclear attack, but in 1946 they started making vinegar again. In 1950 Otafuku began production of Worcestershire sauce, but local cooks complained that it was too spicy and too thin, that it didn't cling to okonomiyaki, which was becoming the nutritional staple of Hiroshima life. So Otafuku used fruit- originally orange and peach, later Middle Eastern dates- to thicken and sweeten the sauce, and added the now-iconic Otafuku label with the six virtues that the chubby-cheeked lady of Otafuku, a traditional character from Japanese folklore, is supposed to represent, including a little nose for modesty, big ears for good listening, and a large forehead for wisdom.