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Do you know about okonomiyaki?

Updated: Jul 22, 2021

" it’s a loose collection of ingredients bound by the barest amount of glue." Felicity Cloake

Last week's How to cook the perfect ... was on Okonomiyaki, which I had never heard of. However, I thought that if it had made it to the column then it must be a well-known dish. I mean that's what she does - a round-up of all the different ways you can make a dish that is in common usage or recently fashionable. Something everyone knows about. Which just goes to show that I know virtually nothing (a) about Japanese food and (b) about what's popular. Well I'm old, and I'm not a huge fan of Japanese food.

That said, this particular dish - if you can call it that - sounds tempting. A perfect dish for the era of fridge and pantry raid food. A perfect leftovers dish. Japanese comfort food.

"Quick, simple and gratifyingly substantial, as well as infinitely adaptable, it also happens to be ideal for those times when you think you have nothing much to eat; I can confirm from experience that even badly made okonomiyaki tastes good." Felicity Cloake

The name translates as 'how you like' from 'okonomi' and 'cooked' from 'yaki' or as Felicity Cloake puts it:

This Japanese vegetable fritter’s name literally translates as “cooked as you like it”, which is perhaps the most important thing you should know about okonomiyaki."

Origins date back a long way to something which is not at all the same really, and if you want the full history then go to Wikipedia. Having now read several people's opinions about what it should or should not be, ranging from really quite didactic, to very laissez-faire, the main thing I have learnt is that it is a sort of pancake. There is always cabbage, and the lines you see going across the top are that Japanese kewpie mayonaise that you can find in your local supermarket and otafuku okonomiyaki sauce, which you seem to be able to get at Woolworths but not at Coles. And Asian grocers of course, and I'm sure we are all within reach of one of those. Besides all sorts of substitutes are mentioned - Worcestershire sauce, BBQ sauce, HP sauce. So yes, it's a very forgiving recipe as far as ingredients go. Plus seaweed and bonito flakes and I know you can get them in the supermarkets.

As to method there are basically two methods - the Osaka version which is the most common, where everything is mixed together, cooked and then topped with things like seaweed and bonito flakes and those two sauces, or the Hiroshima method where the pancake is cooked, topped with all the other stuff, and sometimes with another layer of pancake stuff. It's more complicated.

But honestly it seems that you can do more or less what you like:

"the Japanese have no compunction about modernizing classic dishes ... The meaning of okonomi extends to all elements of the dish. It doesn't judge; its only job is to comfort and console." J. Kenzi López-Alt

By now I was somewhat appalled at my ignorance. As I said, I am not a fan of Japanese food, but I have at least heard of most of their most famous dishes. Not this one, and yet from my reading today it seems that it is a major thing in Japan, maybe a household staple, and now, obviously spreading around the world.

I checked out various recipes, but honestly not one is the same as the other - except they all end up having a characteristic look - a sort of large thick round pancake with that criss-cross pattern on the top. Here are some examples.

The two top left are from Love and Lemons and Just one Cookbook - two foodie blogs that I haven't come across before. They actually demonstrate in a way the two extremes, with the Love and Lemons team going for fairly non-traditional and simple, whilst Just one cookbook is fairly pedantic about what has to go into it.

And this includes, what she says is the crucial ingredient - yamaimo - a kind of yam, which when grated, as shown here, goes all slimy. It's mixed into the batter instead of eggs and apparently gives it its fluffy texture. The picture is from an article, and recipe in Serious Eats from J. Kenzi López-Alt (what a name), who I have found to be someone worth seeking out. His or her - I know not which - recipe looks to be pretty nice, and the article has lots of very useful step-by-step pictures. He started out with strips of pork on to which he poured his batter, turned it over half-way - he had a nifty trick for doing that - before doing that pretty topping. (I see I have assumed this is a male, which just shows what a victim of the lower status of women I am.)

To this point I had thought that this might be a thing in the UK and America, but possibly not here. Well I knew of the existence of the Kewpie mayonnaise and all those other weird Japanese ingredients. I knew that sushi was big business, but I was not aware of okonomiyaki in Oz.

So I had a look - and there is Adam Liaw - even Felicity Cloake referred to his recipe. And that's perhaps not a surprise - I think he is half Japanese? But then I found that has seven recipes to choose from, including one from Coles. Woolworths has one too although theirs is from Jamie Oliver. So obviously this is yet another example of being completely out of the loop.

In Japan there are, of course, lots of okonomiyaki restaurants, which are often like those teppanyaki ones where the chef cooks it on a big hotplate for you, from the ingredients you have chosen. One of the biggest chains is called Dohtonbori and would you believe they have just opened two branches in Melbourne - one in Docklands, and one, to my amazement just down the road in Doncaster shopping town.

Maybe the next time we go to a film there - when will that be? - we should give it a try. Something new to try anyway.

I'll end with a description from J. Kenzi López-Alt - it seems to explain the general enthusiasm the best.

"She tossed together chopped cabbage and vegetables with a couple of eggs and a packet of dry batter mix before frying it in a cheap aluminum nonstick skillet and sliding it out onto a plate, drizzling it with Japanese mayonnaise and a thick, brown sauce. Its flavors—sweet and savory, spicy from bits of ginger, smoky with the flavor of dashi—were instantly recognizable (as they would be to anyone who grew up eating casual Japanese food), while the texture, simultaneously crunchy and creamy, hit all of my comfort food sweet spots. No wonder they call this stuff Osaka soul food."


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