Okonomiyaki is one of the most popular soul foods in Japan, especially in Osaka, where they take particular pride in how it is made. Okonomiyaki can be described as an unsweetened savory pancake made of flour, eggs, cabbage and other ingredients like pork and seafood. In this article we take a look at several easy to prepare home recipes as well as regional differences in okonomiyaki, its ingredients, and how it's eaten, all of which are important for understanding Japanese food. Let's jump right into the surprisingly unknown world of okonomiyaki!
What is Okonomiyaki?
Okonomiyaki (お好み焼き) is a dish with a round flour-based pancake-like batter filled with cabbage, tenkasu (tempura bits/scraps), bonito flakes and other vegetables.
"Okonomi'' means "something you like", encouraging you to add your favorite ingredients to the basic recipe. The surface of the okonomiyaki is topped off with a brown sauce and a sprinkle of green laver and bonito flakes. Okonomiyaki is loved in many parts of Japan because of the accessibility of the ingredients and the ease of preparation. In particular, Hiroshima and Osaka prefectures are considered to have the most popular and delicious okonomiyaki. This is because the cooking method and ingredients of okonomiyaki in these prefectures are unique and many restaurants can be found that proudly claim that their okonomiyaki is the best.
Okonomiyaki - Japanese Savory Pancake
Okonomiyaki is a teppanyaki dish that uses flour and cabbage. You can grill these ingredients and use your favorite ingredients as a filling, such as vegetables, meat, and seafood. For the finishing t...
Osaka-style okonomiyaki (大阪風お好み焼き) is one of the most popular types of okonomiyaki and provides an archetype of what okonomiyaki should look and taste like.
Osaka is located near historical places such as Kyoto, Kobe and Nara, and owes its development as a major transportation hub. The most distinctive feature of Osaka-style okonomiyaki is that all the ingredients are mixed and cooked on a thin griddle. The dough, eggs, cabbage and meat are mixed together to form the base of the pancake. This base is placed on a griddle, where both sides are cooked. Compared to okonomiyaki in other parts of the world, the Osaka version is characterized by a fluffier finish. To increase the fluffiness even further, some cooks add yams to the mix. The result is a fluffy and savory okonomiyaki that one can't help but overeat.
Along with its Osaka rival, Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki (広島風お好み焼き) is one of the most iconic okonomiyaki in Japan.
The Hiroshima-style is characterized by its layering process, where layers of vegetables and pork are carefully added one at a time as it is grilled on a hotplate. Note the difference in method to the Osaka style, where all ingredients are mixed in with the batter. An untrained eye can easily distinguish the two for another reason; the layering of the Hiroshima style results in a pancake that can become very tall, as opposed to its Osaka cousin, which is almost always flat. Hiroshima-style also incorporates eggs and yakisoba noodles into the layering, making this okonomiyaki a fun way to play with the texture and taste. In addition to the above two styles, there is also a dish called "modern-yaki. This is a type of Osaka-style okonomiyaki that mixes yakisoba and udon noodles to make it more voluminous, just like Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki. Modern-yaki seems to be a combination of the Osaka-style and Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki.
7 Key Ingredients to Make Okonomiyaki
There are seven ingredients that are indispensable in making okonomiyaki. These are yams, tenkasu, red ginger, sauce, mayonnaise, bonito flakes and aonori. If any of these toppings are missing, your okonomiyaki will be lacking in an important taste or texture. From here, let's look at each of these essential ingredients for okonomiyaki.
Nagaimo / Yamaimo
Nagaimo / Yamaimo are root potatoes native to East Asia, growing in moist soil along rivers and other well watered areas. They can be grated and used as an ingredient that adds fluffiness to batter and dough. It can also be added to salad for its crunchy texture--yamaimo has the rare quality for a potato of being able to be eaten raw, as the digestive enzymes prevent the stomach from getting upset. When making okonomiyaki, grated yamaimo is added to the batter. By adding yamaimo, the pancake comes out fluffier with more agreeable texture. The fluffier the pancake, the easier it is to eat, and consequently, the more you will eat!
Tenkasu (tempura bits/scraps)
Tenkasu is the by-product of tempura; a dish that calls for deep-frying of vegetables like eggplants and green peppers, as well as prawns that have been dipped in batter. More specifically, tenkasu is the remnants of the batter that come off the tempura when it is fried. The tenkasu bits are scooped up off the top of the hot oil with a metal net. Tenkasu is often used in restaurants as a taste enhancer for udon, soba noodles and okonomiyaki. It may also be sold in some Japanese supermarkets as "Agedama".
Beni-Shoga (Red Pickled Ginger)
Red pickled ginger are small strips of ginger that have been dyed red and pickled in vinegar. The pickled ginger gives a tangy kick, especially welcome when eating greasy foods and the bright red color adds an accent to dishes. When eating okonomiyaki, the red ginger adds color to the dish and provides a tangy counter-taste to the other ingredients.
Okonomiyaki sauce is similar in spirit to Worcestershire sauce, but sweeter and thicker. Depending on the region of Japan, there are places where the locals prefer sweeter okonomiyaki sauce, while others prefer their sauce with a stronger saltiness. To give you an idea Worcestershire sauce is the least dense, followed by a medium density and high density okonomiyaki sauces that are commonly used. The type of sauce you put on your okonomiyaki will change the way it tastes. The sauce represents the preferred taste of the people of the region. The okonomiyaki sauce used in Hiroshima is said to be sweeter, while the okonomiyaki sauce in Osaka is said to be less sweet.
Mayonnaise is considered a good friend to okonomiyaki sauce. Having a mayonnaise and okonomiyaki sauce that you like is no small matter, as it is not an exaggeration to say that 80% of the taste of okonomiyaki is determined by mayonnaise and okonomiyaki sauce. The thickness, tanginess and oiliness of mayonnaise enhances the flavor of okonomiyaki. If you try and eat okonomiyaki without mayonnaise, the sweetness of the okonomiyaki sauce will be too strong and the taste will be unbalanced. Mayonnaise and okonomiyaki sauce should be considered as an inseparable pair.
Katsuobushi (Dried Bonito Flakes)
Katsuobushi is a dried product made from bonito. Bonito flakes are sold in small packs at convenience stores. Sprinkled on tofu or boiled and soaked vegetables, it is a good match for okonomiyaki too. When placed on top of okonomiyaki, the bonito flakes react to the heat coming off the surface, causing the bonito flakes to "dance" .
Aonori (Dried Green Seaweed)
Aonori is dried seaweed that has been ground into a powder. It is used to add flavor and a dash of vibrant green accents to various dishes like okonomiyaki, yakisoba and takoyaki. Along with bonito flakes, aonori is an indispensable ingredient in okonomiyaki as it hints at the flavor of the sea.
6 Popular Main Ingredients
There are several ingredients that are recommended to be added to okonomiyaki. Those ingredients are pork, seafood, yakisoba, cheese, rice cakes and green onions. Let's take a look at some of the recommended okonomiyaki recipes that use these ingredients.
Pork belly is one of the most popular ingredients in okonomiyaki. Pork belly, which is often used for bacon, is first grilled on the same hotplate, but separately from the okonomiyaki to ensure that the texture of the crispy bacon and the umami of the pork are accentuated. Why is pork used as an ingredient in okonomiyaki and not another type of meat? Slices of beef would harden when cooked on the griddle and chicken does not have the crispy texture that many Japanese have come to love. A possibility is grilling chicken skin to a crisp, but at the end of the day, the crispy texture and unmistakable taste of grilled pork belly is probably the best meat to use in okonomiyaki.
Seafood is another popular ingredient used in okonomiyaki. In Hiroshima, oysters are sometimes used instead of pork. Fresh oysters are characterized by their unique bitterness and flavor. This is an ingredient that only Hiroshima, where oysters are plentiful, incorporates widely in their okonomiyaki. In Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan, scallops and kelp are used in the batter to make a luxurious okonomiyaki. The kelp itself is a mass of "umami," so the umami of the soup stock is condensed into the okonomiyaki, and the taste is indescribably delicious.
As mentioned earlier, there are also recipes that add yakisoba noodles to okonomiyaki. In particular, in Hiroshima, many okonomiyaki are made with yakisoba and eggs. By adding yakisoba, the glutinous texture of the noodles keeps people from getting tired of eating okonomiyaki. Much like Osaka-style okonomiyaki, where the ingredients are mixed together with the batter, adding yakisoba, also called "modern-yaki", allows you to eat your fill with added eggs and yakisoba noodles.
Okonomiyaki is already full of flavor with the sauce, mayonnaise, and green laver. However, if the taste is still not enough, some people add cheese to the okonomiyaki batter to make it even heartier. The preference is for solid or grated cheeses rather than powdered cheese.
As far as unusual add-ons to okonomiyaki goes, rice cakes, or mochi may take the top spot. In Japan, rice cakes have an important role for celebratory occasions like New Year's Day; however, they are available year round and are commonly sold in supermarkets and convenience stores. Usually, rice cakes are grilled while barbecuing or eaten as a snack. Adding mochi to okonomiyaki is a fun way to enjoy the warm chewiness of the mochi as it takes on all of the savory tastes of the okonomiyaki.
Green onions, or aonegi, can be used as a replacement filling for okonomiyaki without changing the way it is prepared. With green onion, the okonomiyaki becomes easy to digest and has a refreshing taste. This type of okonomiyaki is called negi-yaki and is a dish that can be appreciated when there is a lack of appetite or the day after drinking a bit too much.
How to Eat Okonomiyaki
Everyone has their own way of eating okonomiyaki. However, there are certain ground rules that are helpful to know, especially if this is your first time enjoying this meal. In this section, we look at how Japanese people eat okonomiyaki in various settings.
Okonomiyaki at Home
Usually, when okonomiyaki is prepared and eaten in the comfort of your own home, how it is eaten is not so important. As far as cooking goes, as long as you have a hot plate or large frying pan there should be no problem in the preparation. Mix flour, egg and water in a bowl and pour it into a hot oiled pan. It is easier to make the batter with less water in the beginning. The thickness of the batter is up to you, but most people make it thicker than the okonomiyaki served at restaurants. Once the batter is slightly browned, turn it over. Once both sides are cooked, place the okonomiyaki on a platter and top it with sauce, mayonnaise, aonori (green laver), and katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes), in that order. After that, cut the okonomiyaki with a knife just like a pancake. Japanese people eat okonomiyaki with chopsticks, but you can use a fork and knife. Don't be afraid to use plenty of sauce and mayonnaise.
Okonomiyaki at a Restaurant
Oftentimes, the okonomiyaki will be prepared before your eyes on a large restaurant size hotplate. You may be asked if the okonomiyaki is cooked to your liking. Once your okonomiyaki is ready and served, you will have metallic spatula-like tools called a "hera" to cut the okonomiyaki into pieces. Use the hira to cut the okonomiyaki in half, then turn it 90 degrees and cut the okonomiyaki in half again. You can then use the same hera as a flat spoon, to lift the okonomiyaki from plate to mouth.
Hera or Chopsticks?
As mentioned, when eating at a restaurant, a metallic spatula--a hera--is often used. The reason for this is that it allows you to do both the work of cutting the okonomiyaki and also serves as a type of spoon. Of course, it is possible to use a knife to cut the okonomiyaki and then use a fork and knife to eat it. However, if you master eating okonomiyaki with a hera like the Japanese do, it just may become a conversation starter with some of the locals.
Cooking Your Own Okonomiyaki
When making okonomiyaki at home, it is common to use a large frying pan. Since okonomiyaki baked in a frying pan is thicker than what is served at a restaurant, you may want to use a knife and fork. It is also a good idea to sprinkle some seasonings you have at home. For example, in Japan, there is something called spicy mayonnaise, which is a combination of mayonnaise and hot pepper. If you add a little of this mayonnaise, the spiciness of the hot pepper will accent the okonomiyaki and make it even more delicious. You can also add sugar to the batter to make a sweet okonomiyaki. As you can see, okonomiyaki made at home allows you to have fun with the ingredients, making the okonomiyaki experience more interesting.