As I’ve mentioned in my bio on our About Page, I spent several months studying abroad in Japan. I saw many a sight there, of course, but one memory in particular sticks out. Towards the end of my time in Tokyo, my English students came together to introduce me to a dish I still miss to this day. In my time there I’d come to recognize many iconic Japanese restaurants—the huge, round tables for Hibachi cooking, the long sushi bars staffed with busy men shouting “Irashaemase!” to anyone who entered, the endless drinks and bar food of nomi- and tabehodai—but this place was different. There were griddles, yes, but they were on long, low tables, and only one chef stood behind the bar (which had its own griddle). Where the heck was I?
“What kind of batter would you like?” One of my students asked.
“For your okonomiyaki.”
I let them choose for me and watched, entranced, as the waiter brought a dark bowl of batter. Shrimp, shredded bacon, and strips of cabbage were mixed in; the whole mess was poured on the griddle and the smell set off the “must eat” signal in my brain. Sipping plum wine, we shaped and flipped the cooking mess with little spatulas, then cut and served it. Love at first bite. “Oishii,” I said, mouth full of goodness. Delicious.
Pizza or Pancake?
Often erroneously described as “Japanese pizza,” okonomiyaki are batter-based griddlecakes, more akin to a pancake than a pizza pie. They use a flour-base batter, often with grated yam, and always with strips of cabbage. What goes in past that point? It’s entirely up to you. “Okonomi” means “favorites” or “as you like,” after all. You can cook virtually any kind of okonomiyaki, but that night I ate a deluxe—shrimp, pork, and vegetables. The servings were ridiculous; the okonomiyaki, dense with ingredients and flavors, is a meal in itself, a rarity in a country where everything is a side dish to the almighty bowl of rice. I left full, happy, and with enough leftovers for two meals the next day!
In addition to the ingredients in the batter, okonomiyaki is served covered in dried fish flakes, strips of seaweed, and smothered in the sauce (helpfully called “okonomiyaki sauce”), which is akin to Worcestershire sauce, only sweeter and thicker. Other popular toppings include Japanese mayo, fruit and vegetable sauce, or chili powder, but you’re free to put just about anything on your serving. Careful with that experimentation, though, because this is often a social dish, meant to be eaten with a large group of people.
You may be able to find sushi in any city from sea to shining sea these days, but the humbler okonomiyaki has never really caught on here in the States. Maybe it’s the appearance—the big, messy griddlecakes taste delicious, but look like a culinary car wreck—or maybe it’s just “too Japanese,” but whatever the reason, few Americans have even heard the term.
Fortunately, there’s no need to wait for the okonomiyaki trend to hit your town—the dish isn’t hard to make, provided you’re near an Asian market. All you need for the batter is some cabbage, flour, eggs, and water; the rest is up to you. This recipe is a good starting point. It even recommends a lot of possible ingredients!
So next time you’re considering sushi or hibachi or some other American-Japanese staple for the umpteenth time, consider bucking routine and watching okonomiyaki sizzle on your griddle instead. It may seem a little unusual at first, but hey, wasn’t sushi?