Known as Japanese comfort food, okonomiyaki is a savory pancake that is all at once sloppy, crispy, gooey, savory, sweet, and umami. Our okonomiyaki is made of red cabbage and topped with pickled pink ginger, scallions, and dried seaweed, but since okonomi translates to “how you like,” you can make okonomiyaki with any mix of ingredients and toppings you choose.
Hi friends! Today we continue The Every Kitchen’s food stories series with Bethany, a registered dietitian and a beautifully talented writer. I can almost guarantee that you’re going to buy a plane ticket to Japan after reading her travel essay because her vivid writing leaves you no other option than to experience it for yourself. Assuming you book your flight in advance, you can make and eat okonomiyaki while you await your adventure.
Visions of kaleidoscopic kawaii and ancient temples swirled through my mind as I packed my bags for an adventure in Japan. With my duffle bag looking like an overstuffed sausage, I was chomping at the bit to step off of the plane and explore the vibrant mix of old and new culture that make Japan a sought-out destination. The sight of rice fields as the plane descended further enticed my vagabond soul. A true “field of dreams” for a jet-lagged traveler. Kon’nichiwa, Beautiful.
I consider Japan to be the “Madonna” of countries – successfully maintaining its heritage while managing to stay fresh with the changing times. I purposely chose to conduct minimal research prior to my departure. A few Google searches and Yelp reviews supplied substitute activities if a day began to drag, but I was stern with my intention that I was going to “let the wind lead me where it will.” Sounds whimsical, but don’t give me too much credit. Lazy is a description that could also fit. Thankfully, Japan did not disappoint. The narrow alleyways lined with plastic food models and cat décor exceeded my expectations, but what truly swept me off my feet and left me with an insatiable yearning to return, was their okonomiyaki.
“Okonomi-huh?” That’s what I said. Perhaps I am the only one in the dark, but if you are like me and have to read the word twice before attempting to pronounce it, I would be happy to elaborate.
Knowing what I did about Japan, I figured the food would be good. Living in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I am fortunate to be surrounded by authentic Asian cuisines, so my experience of ramen actually goes beyond my college dorm. A family outing at a hibachi grill is a birthday regular, eliciting oohs and ahhs when the onion tower sets ablaze. I have even dabbled in sashimi, and have come to understand that the training intensity of a skilled sushi chef is equivalent to earning a black belt in karate.
Okonomiyaki, however, came like a shooting star without warning. Known as Japanese “comfort food,” it’s essentially a mish-mash of leftovers scrambled together. Its original purpose was a minimal-effort afterschool snack for children. Now, it is quickly becoming a popular street food devoured any time, especially in the wee hours after bars close. Okonomi translates “how you like,” making any ingredient fair game. Bluntly put, it is everything but the kitchen sink thrown over a grill. The base is a nagaimo pancake with egg, and standard ingredients include shredded cabbage, green onion, pork belly, and a special sauce topping. (I would later discover that Hiroshima has its own version that includes a bottom layer of crispy noodles.) It’s sloppy, crispy, gooey, savory, sweet, umami….it’s bliss.
The chance meeting took place in the Namba neighborhood within Osaka, Japan. My boyfriend, Bryan, and I signed up for a bike tour of the city. After miles of dodging locals and taking in the sights, lunchtime was approaching and our guide could sense hungry tourists. “I’ll take you to the best street food around,” he said, keeping his focus on the human and motorized obstacles crossing the busy intersections. Osaka is famous for their takoyaki, so naturally I turned to Bryan and assumed, “Fried octopus balls, I bet.” Our guide parked his bike near an open-aired food stand no larger than my childhood bedroom. The chef was working at a furious pace, pouring pancake-like batter onto the grill, loading on toppings, and flipping when grilled to perfection. The flat snack was definitely not a ball. I opted for the squid topping, took a hardy bite with as much as my chopsticks could grab, and entered food nirvana. I made sure to take an artistically angled photo for my Instagram so that others could view the goodness and I could reminisce when cravings hit.
Since returning to American soil I have been able to find a few restaurants that serve okonomiyaki as an appetizer, but the street service straight from the grill still reigns supreme. Until I get the opportunity to return, my own “how you like it” concoction will have to suffice, but thankfully, we’ve scrambled together a delicious substitute. I hope you agree!
Bethany Grzesiak currently works as a Registered Dietitian in the Ann Arbor VA Healthcare System, providing nutrition education to the nation’s Veterans. The remainder of her time is spent writing behind a laptop, exploring what this world has to offer, or unwinding with friends and family.
The blossoming Ann Arbor/Detroit artistic and culinary scenes have been pure inspiration to her being, and therefore her writing. In addition to deepening her knowledge of nutrition, her aspirations include pursuing a literary career in both fiction and non-fiction genres. Influenced by the wise words of her Grandma, for her next endeavor she is “just waiting for the spirit to move her.”
She is the curator of a blog focused on promoting a community atmosphere within the city of Ann Arbor. To learn more, visit urbannarbor.com. Then follow her adventures on Instagram @urbannarbor and on Twitter @BthnyGrey.
And now, without further ado, your recipe for okonomiyaki awaits! Bethany sent me an okonomiyaki recipe she has used before and I simply modified it to make it accessible in anyone’s household. If your grocery store has a Global section, take a peek. I picked up some pickled pink ginger, Yum Yum sauce (that amazing “white sauce” they serve you at hibachi restaurants), and dried seaweed snacks. However, you can easily make this recipe without using any of those items. Remember – okonomiyaki is “how you like” and I promise that it’s every bit as sloppy, crispy, gooey, savory, sweet, and umami as Bethany described.
Okonomiyaki (Savory Japanese Pancakes)
Known as Japanese comfort food, okonomiyaki is a savory pancake that is all at once sloppy, crispy, gooey, savory, sweet, and umami. Our okonomiyaki is made of red cabbage and topped with pickled pink ginger, scallions, and dried seaweed, but since okonomi translates to "how you like," you can make okonomiyaki with any mix of ingredients and toppings you choose. Recipe adapted from Just One Cookbook.
- 1 cup flour
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
- 2- inch section of baking potato, peeled and grated
- 3/4 cup stock (any type)
- 4 large eggs
- 1/4 cup pickled pink ginger
- 1/2 pound baby sea scallops (or small shrimp or pork belly or any protein)
- 1 1/2 pounds red or green cabbage
- 4 tablespoons canola oil
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- 1 tablespoon fish or oyster sauce
- 2 tablespoons ketchup
- 2 tablespoons Worcestshire sauce
- Okonomiyaki sauce
- Yum Yum sauce
- Pickled pink ginger
- Chopped scallions
- Dried green seaweed (I chopped up Annie Chun’s Roasted Seaweed Snacks)
In a large bowl, combine flour, salt, sugar, baking powder, potato, and stock. Mix until well-combined. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate 1 hour.
Meanwhile, make the okonomiyaki sauce. In a small bowl, whisk together sugar, fish or oyster sauce, ketchup, and Worcestshire until sugar has dissolved. Set aside.
Remove the cabbage core and chop until the cabbage is in small pieces. Set on paper towels to remove the moisture.
When you are ready to cook the okonomiyaki, add eggs, pickled ginger, and scallops to the batter. Mix until well-combined. Slowly stir in cabbage.
Heat 1 tablespoon canola oil in a medium-size skillet over medium heat. (You will cook one okonomiyaki pancake in a skillet, so you may have multiple skillets on the stove if you feel comfortable.) Once hot, add 1/4th of the cabbage and batter mixture and spread in a circle on the pan. You can make it as thin or as thick as you like. Cover and cook 5 minutes. Once the bottom has browned, flip over, cover, and cook 5 more minutes. Transfer to a plate.
To finish: Brush okonomiyaki sauce over the top of the pancake. Drizzle with Yum Yum Sauce. Garnish with pickled ginger, scallions, and seaweed. Serve hot.
*Nutrition facts do not include toppings.
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