Okonomiyaki restaurant eyes more foreign customers

The Japan News

An employee is seen at okonomiyaki chain Chibo’s Muslim-friendly outlet in Osaka on June 20.

By Osamu Maruyama/Japan News Staff WriterChibo, a leading okonomiyaki restaurant chain, has developed a gluten-free menu and opened a Muslim-friendly restaurant in Osaka so that more people around the world can enjoy Osaka’s signature dish.

Chibo Holdings Co., which is based in Osaka and operates about 80 restaurants at home and abroad, in January opened Chibo Diversity Dotonbori in a busy downtown area frequently crowded with foreign tourists.

One of the most common ingredients in okonomiyaki, a savory pancake-like dish with a base of shredded cabbage and batter, is pork. Chibo’s new outlet does not use the ingredient in any of its dishes, as Muslims cannot eat pork for religious reasons.

Instead, they offer dishes featuring such ingredients as seafood, halal beef and chicken, and the okonomiyaki sauce they use is halal-certified. The 19-seat restaurant, which has Muslim members of staff, also has a prayer room.

Indah Wulandari, 18, an Indonesian student studying at a university in Osaka, works part-time at the store. “I’m happy that I can wear a veil while working here,” she said.

Muslim tourists to Japan are said to have a hard time finding Japanese restaurants where they can dine without fear of eating a kind of food forbidden by their faith.

The restaurant has comment books filled with words of appreciation from customers. “I was able to eat real okonomiyaki for the first time today. I was able to enjoy it with peace of mind because it was halal. It was a great experience. Thank you,” read one comment from an Indonesian diner.

According to Chibo Holdings, more than half of the Muslim diners that visit their restaurants in Japan are from Malaysia and Indonesia, two majority-Muslim countries in Southeast Asia.

Chibo, which has outlets in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam, plans to open more restaurants in majority-Muslim countries. In January, it opened a shop in Jakarta, its first in Indonesia, and plans to open one in Kuala Lumpur.

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  • Courtesy of Chibo Holdings Co.

    Chibo’s frozen gluten-free okonomiyaki

  • The Japan News

    Chibo’s gluten-free okonomiyaki

Halal, gluten-free options

Muslim diners are not the only foreigners being targeted by Chibo. The company developed a gluten-free menu that has been offered at many of their restaurants since December 2017 amid increased demand among Western diners.

It also sells frozen gluten-free okonomiyaki so that customers can enjoy the popular dish at home.

The development of the gluten-free menu was prompted by the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics. Chibo, in a bid to have its dishes served in the athletes’ village, created gluten-free okonomiyaki to cater to foreign competitors with wheat allergies.

At first, Chibo’s chefs tried various kinds of non-wheat flours, such as rice flour, but they were not able to replicate the texture and flavor of their wheat-based okonomiyaki.

However, after experimenting with a newly developed product made from rice and water, Rice Gelee, they eventually found a way of making a gluten-free okonomiyaki batter that tasted similar to that used in their standard wheat-based dishes. Rice Gelee was developed by a group company of Osaka-based Yanmar Co., Japan’s leading farm machine manufacturer.

Chibo says that the dish isn’t suitable for people with severe allergies because they also grill their standard wheat-based okonomiyaki on the same iron plates. But customers with mild allergies have expressed their appreciation for the gluten-free option.

The restaurant chain’s strategy is based on an expected increase in foreign visitors to Osaka amid a string of international events, including the Group of 20 summit meeting that kicks off on Friday and the 2025 World Expo in the city.

Hirokazu Ogawa, a marketing section chief at Chibo Holdings said: “We want people who have been unable to eat okonomiyaki because of religious reasons or allergies to give it a try. We want to help spread Osaka’s food heritage around the world.”Speech

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