Street food stalls with glowing paper lanterns and flapping red banner tops are an indispensable presence at the numerous outdoor Japanese festivals held in spring and summer. Energetic calligraphic characters across the red fabric advertise such street food favorites as grilled corn on the cob, takoyaki (octopus balls), fried potato spirals, and grilled squid. On these occasions you can usually find me poking my head through groups of chuugakusei schoolchildren and over obaasan grandmothers, hunting for a sign reading お好み焼き: okonomiyaki.
Okonomiyaki is classic street food and restaurants devoted to it are ubiquitous in every part of Japan. It’s hearty comfort food with strong flavor, a dish subject to widely differing styles, tastes, and opinions. Perhaps this is unsurprising, as the word literally means something along the lines of “whatever you like on the grill.” Any resident of Japan will gladly offer her preferential advice on where to find the best okonomiyaki, whether it be the classic Kansai style, the noodley and separately-layered Hiroshima style, or the more liquidy monjayaki variety.
In Hiroshima there is a multi-level building housing Okonomimura, or “okonomiyaki village,” a complex with multiple floors replete with nothing but okonomiyaki restaurants, one after the other down the corridors. I went there with my father and brother to taste the wonders of Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki. Every restaurant had nearly identical menus and prices. It was a surreal experience.
Unlike sushi, teppenyaki, and ramen, okonomiyaki is not exported abroad and so my bet is that you aren’t familiar with it unless you’ve been to Japan. It’s quick and simple to make and a perfect leftover-pleaser–the ingredients can be whatever you have on hand.
It wouldn’t be cheating to toss literally anything you want into your okonomiyaki (it’d be true to the name), but first-timers generally want to start out safe, so the classic fillings are green cabbage, green onion, and any variety of grilled pork, bacon, shrimp, octopus, squid, mochi, or cheese. Other vegetables such as carrots, radish, and beansprouts go in nicely, as does kimchi.
This time my homemade okonomiyaki wasn’t the biggest success, but I figure you can learn from my mistakes. I mixed too much batter into my fillings–the batter should really be only present just enough to hold everything together. Contrary to the common description of okonomiyaki as a “Japanese pancake” or “Japanese pizza” this dish is far from being doughy or bready–the fillings and sauce take all the attention here. It’s important to emphasize this last point–both sauces and the final toppings of green onion, aonori, and bonito (though I don’t use bonito) should be applied with liberal gusto. This is rich, Japanese-style comfort food!
I improvised the okonomiyaki sauce from ingredients on hand, and found it was a superb substitution. You can also use tonkatsu sauce, if you can find it. Light Hellman mayo will work in absence of the Japanese brand Kewpie mayo, which is very white and light. Don’t use true mayonnaise, as in the rich, yellow French kind.
A note on the batter: true okonomiyaki batter is made with dashi and grated nagaimo yam, which gives depth of flavor and texture. As this recipe is intended for Western cooks with limited access to Japanese produce or products, I am simplifying the batter to suit our purposes, so the yam is left out and stock (or, at worst, water) substitutes for dashi. But if you do find yourself within access of either/or, by all means take advantage!
The recipe below is for Kansai-style okonomiyaki, which is the simplest and most easily satisfying variety, in my view.
- 1 cup flour
- 2 eggs
- 1 cup dashi or stock
- 1/4 head green cabbage, sliced into thin strips
- 2-3 green onions, sliced thinly
- 2 carrots, sliced into thin strips
- selection of pork, bacon strips, shrimp, seafood, diced mochi, cheese, egg, etc. as wished
- 1/2 cup okonomiyaki sauce (recipe follows)
- 1/2 cup kewpie mayonnaise
- aonori flakes (or, tear/cut up sheets of nori into small flakes)
- dried bonito flakes
- Combine flour, dashi, and eggs. Stir to combine. Add sliced vegetables, meats/seafood/mochi and half of the green onion (reserving the rest for topping). Stir again.
- Heat a skillet over medium heat. When hot, add 1/2 cup portion of mixture. Cover and let cook about 5 minutes, or until brown on bottom. Uncover, flip, and cook other side 5 minutes. Top with cheese after flipping, if desired.
- Top liberally with sauce, spreading evenly, then drizzle mayonnaise over. Add a small handful of green onion, aonori, and bonito flakes.
- Serve immediately and eat while hot.
- Worcestershire sauce
- oyster sauce
- Mix the three ingredients in equal parts and adjust to taste.