Know your okonomiyaki

The elusive okonomiyaki (photo by luke chan)

The elusive okonomiyaki (photo by luke chan)

Although one might think it’s suited to the Western palate, okonomiyaki, a dish emblematic of the Osaka region, has never gained the same popularity abroad as ramen. Okonomiyaki is popular in Japan in every sense of the term and its various iterations can be found just about everywhere in Japan. Okonomiyaki which translates as “grill it the way you like it”, seems more a reflection of Western individualism than of Japanese homogeneity. Unsurprisingly, its history, preparation and regional style are far from being clearly defined. Where does it come from? How do you make the dish? What are the different types of local variations?

The history of okonomiyaki seems to be much longer than one might expect. In its most basic definition, it is batter mixed in with vegetables, meat and seafood that is then cooked on a griddle. Grilled batter cakes called funoyaki were accounted for as early as the 16th century. However, these confections, simple in their preparation, were closer to crepes than okonomiyaki. The attempt to emulate Western cooking during the Meiji era saw the rise of many forms of batter confection all distant cousins of the okonomiyaki. The true golden age of okonomiyaki came about after the Second World War. The destruction of the war left Japan with meager food supplies that were supplemented by US flour importations. The most interesting food tend to rise out of necessity and in this way Japan developed a taste for okonomiyaki.

Japan post-war rationing (photo unknown)

Japan post-war rationing (photo unknown)

How can one reconcile the do it the way you like attitude of okonomiyaki with the systematic ritualization and codification of Japan cuisine? By following the rules that will enable you to prepare it the way you like it. Although these rules vary by style, region, or even individual, they all aim at the common pursuit of doing it the way you like it.

Here is how to make it in 6 simple steps.

  1. Okonomiyaki first comes in a bowl with batter, cabbage, onions, egg and with uncooked meat and seafood on top.
  2. Pour a bit of oil on the griddle and cook the meat and the seafood first.
  3. Mix the batter and pour it over the cooking meats and seafood.
  4. Once the bottom side is golden brown, flip the pancake in a quick and precise motion to avoid it breaking to pieces.
  5. After a few minutes of cooking, generously top the pancake with sauce, mayonnaise, fish flakes and seaweed ensuring some sauce spills and sizzles on the griddle.
  6. Keep the okonomiyaki hot on the griddle while you cut pieces of it with a spatula but make sure you do not wait to long or it will burn.

The easiest way to classify okonomiyaki is according to regional style. Here are a few examples:

  • Osaka style – This region mixed okonomiyaki has batter that contains meat, seafood, graded yama imo, egg, cabbage and green onion. The result is a thick and rich pancake that should be eaten with plenty of sauce.
  • Hiroshima style – This region incorporates grilled noodles topped with a fried egg. The noodles are placed between two thin pancakes giving it the appearance of a huge noodle sandwich.
  • Tokyo style – Called monjayaki uses similar ingredients but with a watery batter. The result is not a pancake but rather a sticky paste that is scraped off with miniature metal spatula.

Many more styles exist in Japan but the list would be too exhaustive to pitch. In fact, anyone can create their own recipe by following these basic rules making okonomiyaki an exercise in Japanese self-expression.

Monjayaki in all its glory (photo by t-mizo)

Monjayaki in all its glory (photo by t-mizo)

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