While visiting Japan, and especially after returning from my visit to Japan, I’ve been asked countless times, “What’s your favorite Japanese food?” Before my visit to Japan, I’d always respond with something like, “I dunno, sushi… chicken teriyaki maybe.” Not so anymore. While I was in Japan I got to dine on a food unlike any I had ever experienced before. This food was the peerless okonomiyaki. And it’s delicious.
What is an Okonomiyaki, Anyway?
Okonomiyaki can best be described as a kind of savory pancake. Often translated as an “as you like it pancake,” okonomiyaki can contain a wide variety of ingredients. Okonomiyaki is mainly associated with Hiroshima and the Kansai region of Japan, and there’s often much debate between okonomiyaki aficionados as to which style is superior (it’s Kansai style, in case you were wondering).
Toppings and batters tend to vary according to region but most commonly include any combination of cabbage, meat, seafood, corn, bean sprouts, okonomiyaki sauce (which is kind of similar to steak sauce), mayonnaise, dried bonito flakes, green onion, pickled red ginger, dried seaweed powder, and tempura crumbs. It’s awesome.
Basically, you take some batter with cabbage tossed in, add some savory items from above, cook on a hot surface/pan/whatever, then top with fixings and sauces. There’s a lot of customization here, but they’re all super tasty.
Unfortunately, there’s not really a definitive history on the dish since it’s not really specific as to what makes one up, but it’s speculated that these types of savory pancake thingies have been around in Japan since the 16th century or so. I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t even tried one until after I visited Japan. I’d been missing out on so much!
The turn to okonomiyaki as we know it today seems to have started in the early 1900s. In Japan, Western food was considered anything made from wheat flour, and street vendors wanted to capitalize on this fad of Western food in Japan. Therefore, they would whip up a simple batter and make thin pancakes on an open air griddle and fill it with savory ingredients, kind of like a burrito.
Competition was fierce though and vendors were always trying to outdo each other. Developed first in Tokyo, it soon evolved to include Worcestershire sauce (another import from the West) and cabbage among other things to give it more body. Its popularity quickly spread and eventually morphed into what we know as okonomiyaki today.
Kansai Style vs Hiroshima Style
The Kansai style is easily the most predominant (and best) variant of the dish and is found most widely throughout Japan. All the ingredients are mixed together as above, and it’s cooked much like you would prepare a normal pancake.
In Hiroshima, however, they do things totally wacky. First of all, the ingredients are layered rather than mixed which is ludicrous. The layers are usually batter, cabbage, pork, and optional items such as squid, octopus, and cheese. Noodles are also used as a base and/or topping with fried egg and a generous amount of okonomiyaki sauce. I’d be okay if it was just the egg or the excessive sauce, but noodles is taking it too far, Hiroshima – too far!
The amount of cabbage used is also about three to four times the amount used in Kansai style. Obviously, this is three to four times too much as the Kansai style’s amount of cabbage is perfect. The cabbage found in the inferior Hiroshima version is piled very high atop the okonomiyaki and then squashed down with a spatula. A heathen’s pancake, to be sure.
Some restaurants will prepare the okonomiyaki for you, while others will leave you in charge of its preparation – they just supply the materials and the means. The latter is definitely more fun, especially if you know what you’re doing. If you don’t, well then you’re in trouble (see video above*). Better to let someone else take care of it for you.
These type of “do it yourself” restaurants aren’t all that uncommon in Japan (some even have you catching your own fish!), and while it may seem like a lazy way to get the patrons to do most of the work themselves, it is nice to have your meal cooked and prepared exactly to your own specifications. Again, assuming you know what you’re doing.
Okonomiyaki in America
Quite sadly, okonomiyaki does not seem to be very popular in America at all. I can’t comment on other countries outside of Japan, but in America at least, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it on the menu in Japanese restaurants (at least not in Ohio, anyway). If it were, I’d be eating it all the time.
Do not despair though! It is still possible to make your own okonomiyaki (if you’re brave). It’s not something I’ve yet attempted myself, but since writing this post and reinvigorating my love for the almighty okonomiyaki, I think I’ll have to give it a go sometime soon. For those brave souls interested, you can attempt to craft your own okonomiyaki by following a recipe online, such as this one from Okonomiyaki World.
If you can find a place that serves these in America, or if you are in Japan, please do yourself a favor and try some okonomiyaki. You won’t regret it.
So tell me, have you ever had okonomiyaki before? Do you love it? What’s your favorite style? Ever tried to make it yourself? Let us know in the comments!
*The drama from the video in this post is Kekkon Dekinai Otoko, one of my all-time favorite J-dramas. Check it out!