Okonomiyaki, Japan’s Slow Fast Food

Street food stand in Fukuoka

Most Americans probably think of Japanese food as sushi, ramen, and chicken teriyaki. But of course, in actual Japan, there is a lot more to it. The small restaurants and street food stands serve various kinds of brothy noodle soups and mysterious pickled vegetables, breaded pork chops and barbecued meat skewers. Sweet and savory stuffed buns and dumplings, and bento boxes full of a dozen things most Americans, including me, probably could not identify.

Gen-ki knows Japan’s respect for process. He takes 40 minutes to prepare a small pot of green tea. Photo: Diane Lopez

And I bet not very many Americans have heard of my favorite standby dish, okonomiyaki. (you can say it….just go slow and read it phonetically). The first time I ate okonomiyaki, I thought, “oh well, pancake with slab of noodles and shredded cabbage.” Wrong. Like so much in Japan, okonomiyaki is not as simple as it seems.

Hiroshima-style in Onomichi.

In Onomichi, this couple has been making okonomiyaki — and nothing else — for, um, a really long time.

The dish is associated most with Hiroshima, where it was probably created after World War II when Japan suffered serious food shortages and people were trying to be creative with whatever was available.  By now, Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki is distinct. It has noodles (probably yakisoba or ramen and not udon or buckwheat soba) with a pile of cabbage, bean sprouts, bonito flakes, and sliced pork, all sandwiched between an eggy pancake and a smashed egg.

It’s topped with okonomiyaki sauce, which is usually a combination of soy sauce, tomato paste and worcestershire sauce, but some think the best stuff includes dates and molasses and raisins. https://www.otajoy.com/blogs/news/what-is-okonomi-sauce

Also on the top: seaweed flakes and pickled ginger or pickled something else, a pleasing contrast with the umami of the rest of the dish.

One of the important features of Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki is the griddle or “teppan.”.Most okonomiyaki is made on the griddle and sits there for almost as long as you can stand to wait. Because the longer it’s there, the more carmelized the noodles get.

Although Hiroshima-style is probably most common, “okonomi” means “as you like it,” (haha, not a reference to Shakespeare) so there is potentially an okonomiyaki for every person who has ever eaten it.

And there are regional variations of the dish all over Japan. In coastal Onomichi, you will probably get octopus instead of pork. One cafe made okonomiyaki with spicy noodles. In the Kansai region, (where Kyoto is), everything is all mixed into the batter.  This is not my favorite — I like the slabs of cabbage to be prominent. I got a vegetarian version in Tokushima that included cheese and moochi. The vegetarian version I had in Kurashiki had pork in it — I don’t think that counts as “okonomi.” I hate the bonito flakes because they taste like rotten fish, which is what they are, but I usually eat them hoping for some kind of revelation.

Our hostess in a Setoda cafe, on the island of Ikuchijima off the coast of Onomichi.

OMG she folded it over!

At a street food stand in Fukuoka, on the Island of Kyushu, the okonomiyaki was prepared with NO GRIDDLE and NO NOODLES. The batter included lots of ginger, and peppers were mixed in with the cabbage. The topping of green onions and a grid of mayonnaise made a beautiful presentation. I loved this one because the rich batter and the vegetables weren’t watered down by noodles. Still, I nearly had a melt-down in a Tokyo restaurant that didn’t include the noodles. Sometimes you feel like a nut…

Okonomiyaki in Fukuoka

One cool thing about okonomiyaki is that it is fun to share, especially if it’s sitting on a griddle in front of you. The only problem with sharing is that you will probably have to order a second one.

I am thinking an okonomiyaki restaurant would be quite a hit in Uptown Oakland….

Tokyo food stand

 

“In Japanese, sushi doesn’t mean raw fish. It means seasoned rice.”
              — Guy Fieri, TV chef

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