Sunday, July 10, 2011

Fake Okonomiyaki

When I visited Osaka in 198something I was introduced to the local specialty okonomiyaki, a delicious dinner pancake. Restaurants serving okonomiyaki have tables with little griddles in the middle, and they're made with lots of fanfare that would be annoying if it weren't done by Japanese people. They have such a formal, serious bearing that they can do basically anything and you just assume it's an ancient ritual and is therefore cool. It's not such a stretch when you remember they actually have quasi-religious ceremonies for serving tea and sake. The kitchen dude comes out and oils the griddle, then mixes some chopped cabbage and other vegetables with a rice flour batter and pours it on the griddle, forming it with wooden tools that probably have awesome names. When the pancake has set up, you paint it with some soy sauce, then some bonito flakes are scattered on it and it's flipped over. More painting, more scattering, and then the whole thing is cut up and served. If the guy doesn't do it to your satisfaction he cuts off a finger and presents it to you in atonement*.

It's showy and fun, a kind of kabuki make-a-pizza, and I loved it. The pancake itself is substantial, the vegetables give it a complex texture, and the glazing of soy sauce and bonito is both savory and sweet. I thought Heather might like it, and eating JP style gave me an excuse to make a version of okonomiyaki for her. Granted, the dish I made for her is nothing like a real okonomiyaki, but that's why I made it.

I started by slicing a fennel bulb and half a sweet onion really thin and caramelizing them in olive oil. Fennel cooked this way gets marvelously sweet and has an almost brittle texture. Onions get similarly changed by caramelization, but the transformation doesn't seem as magical. Caramelized onions still taste like onions, but fennel tastes like candy.

While the fennel was cooking, I made the batter. I started with a couple of eggs, some olive oil and a ladle of vegetable stock, then whisked-in rice flour until the consistency was smooth and slightly heavier than a crepe batter. I mixed the flour in first so the starch granules would have time to hydrate before I had to pour the pancake. I grated a carrot and chopped the fennel fronds finely and added them to the batter along with some finely sliced scallion and celery, sea salt and black pepper.

By the time all the vegetables were incorporated, the fennel and onions were nicely caramelized, so I poured the batter over them. I couldn't cook the pancake entirely on top of the stove without flipping it, but I wanted a nice surface for presentation, so I decided to finish it under the broiler. The residual heat in the pan was sufficient to set the pancake, so it didn't need too much time under the broiler. I didn't want a browned top, just a firm surface to spread the dressing on.

I needed a dressing to substitute for the soy sauce glaze, so I used the microplane to make a puree of a garlic clove, then made it into an emulsion with sesame oil and rice vinegar, and added some grated ginger, chopped roasted red pepper and more of the fennel fronds. Microplanes are fantastic for this kind of chore. It would take a five minutes and a bunch of mushing with a mortar and pestle to make a smooth garlic puree conventionally, but just rubbing a clove through a fine microplane gets it done in seconds. I covered the pancake with the dressing and scattered some sea salt, garnishing with a chiffonnade of alley mint.

The dressing contrasted with the candy-like bottom** of the pancake, making each forkful nicely complex and mimicking the effect of the soy and bonito in the original item. Heather was pleased, and I got to keep all my fingers. I told her about the custom I observed during my stay in Japan, of the over-served salaryman pissing in a doorway, performing the traditional drunken-outside-pee ceremony. She said it sounded beautiful and moving. (v)

*Not really.
**You heard me. Candy-like bottom.


  1. man, a lot of your stuff is so "one off" that i rarely think that i could possibly make anything like it, but this, for some reason looks really approachable and very fantastic. i think i'll give it a try. thanks for posting!

  2. DaddyFantastic, I don't do anything hard. Simplicity is a prime motivator for the kind of cooking I do. If you have basic kitchen abilities, you can certainly make anything on here. Dive in.

  3. yeah, i know it's not hard, per se. i guess i get lost in the specifics sometimes. the kinds of products you find, the alley mint or the markets you frequent for example. it seems that you are so process oriented that the meal should turn out the way you end up making it. changing it could/would be futile. almost as if i'd feel like a dick if i didn't do it that way in the first place. but in the end i know that kind of thinking is silly and i'll still check in for some inspiration. thanks again.

  4. The whole point of this blog beyond just Heather getting dinner in her is that whatever you find in the kitchen or market can be used to good effect and make a nice meal. That's it. Use whatever is available in a way that makes a feature of it.

  5. Wow--this sounds so delicious (plus I love the way you write--like you're right here!). I'm going to "whip up" one of these using stuff from the fridge, but mostly because I wanna use this new Himalayan pink salt I got from Sustainable Sourcing (here's their website, just in case: ). Thanks for posting this amazing recipe!

  6. I've always wanted to try okonomiyaki. I think I'd start from some traditional recipe and then improvise after I get the technique right. What kind of cooking surface is best for this pancake -- non-stick, cast-iron, anodized aluminum? I'd think non-stick, like crêpes...

  7. JLG, I use the same steel skillet for everything, but the traditional surface for okonomiyaki is black iron.

  8. Okonomiyaki is awesome. But the mayo my Japanese comrades pour all over it is absolutely horrifying.

  9. I recently learned how to make Okonomiyaki from this youtube video:
    It's pretty charming, but your version looks terrific. Thanks so much for all the great cooking ideas!


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