My feet are swollen and sore, and it’s all because of pork belly. In Japan we had a special distributor which brought our okonomiyaki restaurant fresh cuts two times a week. They were sliced thin like American bacon with just the right amount of marbling. The slices cooked perfectly on our grill—not too crisp, not too limp.
Risa, my best friend and roommate, had told me about Chinatown and Little Korea. I couldn’t believe how expansive Chinatown was—long blocks filled with restaurants and small businesses all crammed together. Risa had even worked at a Japanese maid café in Chinatown for a couple days until she got fired. A customer pinched her oshiri and she threw a café au lait in his face. She was never the serving kind.
While Chinatown was sprawling, Little Korea was all concentrated around West 32nd Street between Fifth Avenue and Sixth Avenue. It had tall buildings with one Korean business on top of another. One of the bigger grocery stores was modern with dark laminate floors and an open ceiling with exposed pipes. All the bags and containers of kimchee in the refrigerated case were making my mouth water. I’m here for the pork, I reminded myself. That was my mission.
Both Chinatown and Little Korea sold precut pork belly, but not quite what I was looking for. Too much fat and sliced too fat, too. I was preparing a very special dinner for a banker who could pay my way to success and I needed to impress. After taking a bus to Lower Manhattan, getting lost, and then riding on the orange subway car back up to 34th Street in Midtown, here I am in Central Park on a bench, completely exhausted in my red Crocs.
I cannot give up, I tell myself. I will not be undone because of pork belly. Risa had also given me the address for a Japanese butcher shop. I get lost again and have to ask three people for the right way to get there. Luckily one of them is a twenty-something man obsessed with anime and manga who has spent time studying in Japan. He tries to get my phone number, but I tell him I don’t have a US-based one yet. He gives me his number which I accept with a smile on my face. Once I’m out of sight, I crumple it and throw it away in an overflowing rubbish bin.
I expect that the Japanese shop will immediately make me feel at home, but it doesn’t. Behind the counter, a gloved worker slices wagyu beef with familiar Japanese metal equipment. There’s a mask over his mouth. While I usually am not the type to chat with strangers, I can’t help myself now.
“Where are you from, Hiroshima?” His voice sounds slightly muffled through his mask.
I keep forgetting how strong my accent is. I’ve lived in Hiroshima my whole life. I nod. “And you—”
“Tokyo.” He says it as matter of fact, as if Tokyo is the center of the universe. I tell him more about my plans and now not only is he completely unimpressed with my birthplace, he’s completely unimpressed with my plans to open an okonomiyaki restaurant.
“We have them here, too,” he remarks.
“But Hiroshima style. Layered with noodles?”
The worker shrugs his shoulders. “Osaka, Hiroshima, it’s all the same. Just a Japanese pancake.”
What a barbarian, I thought. Anyone who thinks there’s no difference between Osaka and Hiroshima style knows nothing about okonomiyaki.
I observe him arranging his wagyu slices on a long pan. I hate to admit that the meat is beautiful. But most of it is meant for shabu-shabu or grilled steaks. I don’t even bother to ask him about pork belly because I don’t want him scowling at me again.
When I turn to leave, he calls me over. He leans forward over the counter into my ear. “New York City is no place for amateurs.” I can feel his hot breath through his mask. “Especially female ones.”
I am too shocked to react, and stumble out the door. An amateur? Me? He knows nothing about the famous Aka Okonomiyaki in downtown Hiroshima. He knows nothing about me.
I am not going to let a barbarian Japanese man discourage me. I find a wifi hotspot at a Starbuck’s and began searching for other alternatives in Manhattan. After downloading the information on my phone, I am ready to literally take on Manhattan.
The butcher shops, I must say, are amazing—so pristine and large. I almost faint to see the array of meats carefully arranged in long cases. Each is identified by a specific farm and its location. Upstate New York (where was that, anyway?). New Jersey. Vermont. Canada. I feel dizzy with the choices. The beef, its color a vibrant blood red, are all gorgeous. But okonomiyaki pork belly? None to be found.
All the butchers have tattoos, even the women. While attitudes are changing in Japan, tattoos were still taboo in certain places—beaches, public baths, and golf courses. I know some surfers with tattoos all over their arms, but they are careful to cover them up in full body wetsuits. Although I consider myself fairly open minded, I have to admit it’s still a bit shocking to see someone handling raw meat with a bleeding cross tattooed on their forearms.
Most of the butchers wear beards, while the women have their hair shaved short. In one butcher shop, all the men wear bow ties and straw hats as if they were in some singing club instead of breaking down the body of a pig. I am confused and when I try to ask questions, they don’t respond. I think that they don’t see me, so I stand on my tippy toes in my Crocs and at one point even wave my hands.
One of the bow-tied, tattooed butchers stares at me, a 35-centimeter cimeter in his hands. “Yeah.”
I make my request about the pork belly, but he just frowns and keeps slicing his beef. My face reddens, but no one notices. All the customers are yelling out their orders like dogs barking for their bones. I get pushed out of line as if I was not even there.
Before I know it, I’m back on the sidewalk. There’s only one more butcher shop on my list. Until now I hadn’t allowed fear to touch me. I couldn’t let it, because what options did I have? There was no place for me at Aka Okonomiyaki. That is my parents’ legacy. I’m not going to forsake it just because my crazy uncle decides there is no place for me.
I find some Yelp reviews about the last butcher shop. On my list I can’t understand all the English. Pompous. Pretentious. All “P” words. And then a word I do understand. Proud.
This shop is my absolutely last chance. Without the best quality pork belly, my okonomiyaki venture is over even before it’s begun. I take a deep breath and take the 6 train to East Harlem.