Guess what? I stocked up on groceries from the Japanese market. I’m getting so predictable. The truth is that I’ve wanted to make okonomiyaki for over a year now, and I am just now getting around to it. Sad? Or proof that putting your mind toward something eventually makes it happen? Is one shotgun shell left a half empty or half full shotgun? Depends on how many zombies are coming your way I guess.
Right, okonomiyaki. There are split factions over whether or not nagaimo or mountain yam is a critical ingredient, pitting blogger against blogger. Everyone agrees that mountain yam on its own is pretty fucking gross¹ — it’s a crunchy, starchy root toober (<–brain fart error and I’m keeping it) sort of like a jicama, except that lots of people are allergic to touching it raw and when you grate it it turns into semen. True!
See? Actually I grated it a little too large here so it didn’t quite get that translucent snottiness, but you can see where it might head that direction. And stirring a big bowl of it is pretty gag-inducing. It sort of reforms itself into a big glob that you can’t really stir through, almost like a raw egg white.
The thing is, when it cooks as a part of a savory pancake batter, it becomes fluffy and light. Most of the okonomiyaki recipes I found online did not include grated mountain yam, and I consider this to be a real travesty. Some even recommended against it! This is bullshit. They’re just saying that because they can’t find any. There’s no question in my mind that the mountain yam produces a final texture that absolutely cannot be emulated with any other product.
Wait, maybe I should explain what okonomiyaki is? Well, it’s a giant savory griddle-fried fritter with lots of vegetables and maybe a little meat or seafood in it, and then slathered with delicious toppings. Some people call it “Japanese pizza” disregarding that Japanese people eat regular pizza; other people call it “Japanese pancake” also disregarding that Japanese people eat regular pancakes, too. Ultimately, there’s no American analog for the okonomiyaki.
So aside from the mountain yam debate, there are as many different recipes for okonomiyaki as there are for potato salad. You have to just know what sort of end product you want, but in a way, this is very freeing. Don’t like green onions? Don’t put them in. Like corn? For god’s sake, dump some corn in. Like little shrimpies?
Have some little shrimpies. I guess these are called “sakura ebi”? Which translates to “cherry blossom shrimp”? All I know is: pretty. Also: tasty.
So here’s my okonomiyaki, pretty traditional with little shrimpies, some beni shoga (that’s pickled ginger similar to the kind you get with sushi, but not exactly the same) and chopped green onion. And corn! There’s corn in there, but you can’t see it. Mmm, invisible corn.
When you get this snotty, stringy glop all stirred up, and right when you’re stating to doubt yourself, that’s when you layer on the Berkshire pork belly slices. Both sides of the “pancake” get fried for quite some time, taking care to actually cook it all the way through. If you do the pork belly, the pork belly side gets all crispy and delicious after you flip it over. You know what else would be rad? Spam.
When you’re done, it gets topped with okonomi sauce — a sweet brown sauce that tastes a little like worcestershire; Kewpie mayonnaise; little powdered potent flakes of seaweed called aonori; and last but not least: dry fish flakes called katsuobushi (which dogs and cats also lose their minds over). It seems like a random assemblage of weirdness — and it is — but no more weird than a Chicago-style hotdog. And in my humble and learned opinion: way better tasting. THAT’S RIGHT CHICAGO, I SAID IT.
i learned everything I know about okonomiyaki from two people: Junko Yamamoto and Makiko Itoh of Just Hungry. (Who I guess had an unnamed emergency surgery two days ago but will be okay? Let’s hope so! Get well, Maki!) Junko showed me the physicality of it, and stressed multiple times that she never used a recipe and that as long as the texture of the batter was right, your final product would be delicious. Makiko’s recipe at her blog is the one I worked from to assure myself I was doing it right, and it’s as spot on as you can get (and she has helpful photos). as Makiko notes, you can readily buy both powdered mountain yam and powdered okonomiyaki mix, but there’s really no reason to when any decent market with Japanese produce will always have mountain yam. of course you could theoretically make it without the yam altogether, but did you even read the first half of this post? one more thing! it seems like a lot of strange ingredients, but they are all very common Japanese foods and will almost certainly be at your nearest Asian market that carries at least some Japanese goods. also, everything is cheap and keeps for a long time, so they’re safe food investments.
for the ‘pancake’
4 oz grated mountain yam (nagaimo), which will probably be about 4 inches of tuber
4 to 5 tablespoons of dashi stock, or water with a pinch of dashi powder
1/2 cup all purpose flour, sifted
1/2 small green cabbage, chopped like for coleslaw
3 tablespoons of beni shoga (or sushi ginger, in a pinch)
2 chopped green onions
1 tablespoon of sakura ebi (if you can find them, if you can’t it will be okay)
thinly sliced pork (belly is best, bacon is too flavorous)
your favorite vegetable — shredded carrot? sliced mushrooms? corn!
a fried egg for the top
cooked ramen noodles — true!
masago, aka flying fish roe (the little red eggs sometimes on California rolls)
katsuobushi (fish flakes)
- In a large bowl, peel the brown skin from and grate the mountain yam very finely. It is easy to grate and will turn instantly into white slime. This is good. However! The bare vegetable has a agitating quality to many folks’ skin, so either use clean kitchen gloves or carefully hold the yam by a piece of plastic and avoid touching the snot.
- Add the water and/or dashi and stir to combine. Add the sifted flour and stir thoroughly. It will be quite thick and coagulate into a disgusting blob. Add TWO of the eggs and again stir to combine. It will become an even more disgusting blob.
- Add the cabbage and stir to coat. It will be somewhat difficult because the snotball will be fighting you a little, but you can’t hurt it so just keep stirring. Add the third egg and stir some more.
- Add the remaining ingredients such as the green onion, other optional vegetables, dried shrimp, pickled ginger, chopped squid, roughly chopped raw fresh shrimp, cubed Spam, whatever you want. As long as it cooks reasonably fast and sounds good, throw it in. If you’re going to do pork belly slices, wait because those will lay directly on the pancake as it cooks.
- In a wide medium-heat non-stick frying pan or better yet, an electric griddle set to about 350°, ladle out about 1/3 of the glop and pat lightly down into a thick but not-too-thick patty. While it sizzles away, you can add slices of pork or anything else you want to eventually actually fry directly on the surface of the heat when you flip the pancake over. So, tofu slices, Spam slices, whatever you want. After about 5 minutes, use a spatula to look at the underside of the pancake. When it is nice and brown, carefully (even using two spatulas) flip the whole thing over.
- When the top side is now brown, another 5 minutes or so, flip it back over to it’s original side and top with (in this order): okonomi sauce, Kewpie mayonnaise, aonori and katsuobushi. The fish flakes will dance! This is why it is fun to make as a group around an electric griddle and a couple of cold beers.
- Immediately remove to a cutting board or plate and chop into about 4 pieces and gobble it up while it’s hot enough to burn the roof of your mouth. Maybe that’s why it’s called Japanese pizza?
- But while you’re eating, start the next one.
- The recipe serves two very hungry people or four sort of hungry people who are eating additional snacks on the side. The recipe is easily doubled and really does provide amazing social entertainment, so it’s pretty rad for when you have guests over.
¹ I mean, lots of people love it, but whatever. It’s my blog.