Fernando Lopez

  • Peter Barakan

    Host

    Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.

  • Fernando Lopez

    Main guest

    Fernando Lopez originally hails from Guatemala in Central America. He is now the chef-owner of Lopez, an okonomiyaki restaurant that shares his name, in Hiroshima. Lopez first came to Japan in 1996 and got his start working at a well-established okonomiyaki restaurant. He eventually opened his own place in 2000. While he does cook using more traditional okonomiyaki flavors, Lopez has also branched out and created his own original version that has cheese and jalapeños as toppings. Hiroshima is widely known for its okonomiyaki culture, and within the city limits alone, it’s said there are over 800 okonomiyaki establishments. Despite that, Lopez is ranked among the top 20 most popular restaurants on dining review sites.

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November 21, 2017

Japanophiles: Fernando Lopez

*You will leave the NHK website.

Visit the restaurant called Lopez in Hiroshima, and between the name and the flag outside, you’d be forgiven for assuming it serves up Guatemalan cuisine. But enter the restaurant, and you’ll find it’s actually dedicated to okonomiyaki, the city’s traditional soul food. In all likelihood, the place will be packed with happy customers.

How did Guatemalan Fernando Lopez come to master this Japanese delicacy and what draws so many customers to his establishment? That’s the subject of this Japanophiles edition of Japanology Plus.

While not quite as well-known abroad as sushi or ramen, okonomiyaki is one of Japan’s signature comfort dishes. Sometimes described as a "savory pancake," okonomiyaki is made of a crepe-like base loaded with cabbage, pork and other ingredients both cooked and eaten on a large griddle.

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Okonomiyaki is cooked before your very eyes, then cut and eaten with a metal spatula.

As we learn on the program, okonomiyaki is especially loved in Hiroshima, where it became popular in Japan’s postwar years. But Hiroshima is not the only city that’s closely associated with the dish. Host Peter Barakan notes early in the program that Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki is "a little different." That’s because the style eaten in much of Japan comes from Osaka, which has its own unique take on okonomiyaki.

In Hiroshima style, which we see Fernando Lopez prepare to perfection, each ingredient is added layer by layer, beginning with the base and moving to the cabbage, noodles and so on. In Osaka, on the other hand, all of the ingredients are mixed into a batter and grilled simultaneously. The Osakan style also lacks the soba noodles that are a signature element of Hiroshima okonomiyaki. Debate, of course, rages as to which style is better, but the simplest and most delicious way to discover your preference is obviously to try both!

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Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki is said to use much more cabbage than its Osakan counterpart.

In the program, we learn how Lopez, who met his wife Makiko in Hawaii and eventually relocated to her hometown of Hiroshima, came to run his own okonomiyaki restaurant. Part of that process involved an apprenticeship with okonomiyaki chef Hiroki Ogawa, whom Lopez still refers to as "master."

The master-apprentice style of learning a trade has a long history in Japan and applies to a wide variety of fields, from cooking to craft-making to martial arts and more. In the ancient form of the system, apprentices actually lived with their masters, essentially becoming family members, and took on a variety of household responsibilities in addition to learning their trade.

These live-in apprentices would study for a period of years (or even decades) before going independent, at which time the relationship with the master would evolve into a sort of friendship, with the former apprentice making visits to the master. While this formal live-in system has largely disappeared, the concept of learning one’s trade as an apprentice over a period of years is alive and well, as we see with Lopez and Ogawa.

Though Lopez is dedicated to Hiroshima okonomiyaki in its traditional form, as learned from master Ogawa, he was eventually persuaded by a persistent regular to add a Latin American twist. Customers can now order a special okonomiyaki made with jalapenos, which adds a unique spiciness to the Japanese classic. One such customer, featured in the program, loved the spicy okonomiyaki so much that he apprenticed with Lopez and then opened up his own restaurant, which also features the dish.

It’s a common theme throughout our Japanophiles series, whether the guest works in food, hospitality, tourism or one of many other industries: a desire on the part of these Japan aficionados to simultaneously preserve traditional Japanese culture while adding their own unique touch. Judging by the popularity of Fernando Lopez’s okonomiyaki with both locals and visitors from outside Japan alike, the approach seems to be a success for this Japanophile.

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Pickled jalapenos add a whole new flavor to okonomiyaki.

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Lopez’s respect for the traditional style, plus his own special touch, keeps customers coming.

*You will leave the NHK website.